E-rate/Schools and Libraries Program
The Senate Communications Subcommittee on June 20 took a deep dive into the Federal Communications Commission's Universal Service Fund, with a focus on rural broadband deployment and telehealth. Chairman Roger Wicker (R-MS) signaled that he and Ranking Member Brian Schatz (D-HI) were reintroducing the Reaching Underserved Rural Areas to Lead [RURAL] on Telehealth Act, which would qualify some rural healthcare providers for USF funds. He said robust broadband connections are vital to the adoption of "lifesaving technology." Wicker, who previously has introduced a bill requiring the FCC to improve broadband data collection, said, "[E]nsuring broadband deployment to rural healthcare providers is a critical component of the USF program." He also said the importance of delivering broadband to rural areas cannot be understated, citing economic and digital innovation.
A change in leadership at the Federal Communications Commission has led to rising uncertainty about the future of efforts to boost broadband access, preserve an open internet, and protect online privacy—all issues affecting the K-12 sector. Atop education leaders' list of concerns is the E-rate, a $3.9 billion federal program that helps schools and libraries pay for telecommunications services. A wide cross-section of experts credits the FCC's 2014 overhaul of the program for helping.
With President Donald Trump emphasizing his infrastructure revamp proposal, the Communications Workers of America wants Congress to emphasize broadband investment in any plan it approves. That came in a letter to the leadership, Republican and Democrat, of the House and Senate Commerce Committees.
CWA says any broadband infrastructure bill should: 1) direct $40 billion in funding to unserved communities; 2) change the tax laws to accelerate depreciation for broadband capital expenditures; 3) direct $10 billion to the Federal Communications Commission 's E-rate fund for high-speed broadband to schools and libraries; and 4) supplement the FCC's Lifeline subsidy (basic telecom for those who need help affording it) with a $100 tax credit per year on the purchase of broadband by low-income families (less than $35,000 per year).
In schools across the United States, IT departments are routinely tasked with supporting teachers as they move toward more technology-centric instructional environments. It may seem obvious that this can only be done with a foundation of robust broadband infrastructure. In practice, however, schools don’t always know the state of their infrastructure, or how to best improve it. The challenges that school administrators face when budgeting for and deploying technology vary widely, as do their approaches to supporting its use within their schools. Measuring and assessing network health is a critical challenge facing public schools as they plan for both today’s and tomorrow’s broadband needs.
School districts lack network measurement tools.
School networks present unique technical challenges for network measurement.
Network management practices should be considered in any measurement program.
Upstream ISP peering may affect school network performance.
Performance measurements should be compared with data on network capacity.
The Federal Communications Commission’s Wireline Competition Bureau released a Public Notice on May 31, 2017 granting, denying and dismissing various petitions related to actions taken by the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC) on the E-rate program and rural healthcare. Petitions for reconsideration or applications for review of these decisions must be filed within 30 days of the Public Notice.
What’s the next Wi-Fi frontier? And how can we tap into it for public good? A key band of airwaves that companies are seeking is the unused spectrum in lower frequencies that sit between TV channels. The spectrum in the gaps between bands of airwaves reserved for broadcast television offers prime real estate for companies seeking to bolster connectivity. Those unused bands of airwaves, known as “TV white spaces” (TVWS), are a target for Microsoft in particular. The company recently introduced a program to bring free Internet access to rural families to help bridge the “homework gap” in Charlotte and Halifax counties in southern Virginia.
In 2016, New America’s Open Technology Institute also urged the Federal Communications Commission to allow schools to leverage TVWS to give students lacking broadband at home remote access to the school’s high-capacity broadband, which would be subsidized by the federal E-Rate program.
The American people rightfully expect that all federal programs operate as efficiently as humanly possible and are targeted to help those truly in need. As Commissioners at the Federal Communications Commission, we have an obligation – as stewards of federal programs funded by monthly fees on American’s communications bills – to improve the functionality and effectiveness of the programs we oversee, including the Federal universal service fund (USF). Failure to do so would waste consumers’ hard-earned income, diverting it from the intended purposes and undermining public confidence in the programs. We should end the practice of spending scarce USF high-cost support to illogically subsidize the cost of communications services for very rich people who happen to live in the more rural portions of our nation. Because of our budgetary constraints, each dollar spent subsidizing service unnecessarily is a dollar that is not being used to help bring broadband to unserved Americans, particularly those who cannot afford the full cost of service. We seek comment on whether, and if so how, to implement means-testing within the high-cost universal service program.
CoSN and the Alliance for Excellent Education issued two complementary resources for school leaders to advance digital equity and increase broadband connectivity to students nationwide. Advancing Digital Equity and Closing the Homework Gap details the current state of broadband access, its adoption, and its barriers in US communities. The second brief, Advancing Digital Equity: An Update on the FCC’s Lifeline Program, recaps efforts to modernize the Lifeline Program, explains how these changes are at risk, and puts forth ways school leaders can stand up for the program and its positive impact on learning.
In the briefs, the groups underscore current data that paint the picture of broadband access and its implications:
- The Pew Research Center found that 5 million households with school-age children do not have broadband access. Low-income families make up a heavy share of those households.
- According to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 42 percent of teachers reported that their students lack sufficient access to technology outside of the classroom.
- Results from CoSN’s 2016 Annual Infrastructure Survey show that 75 percent of district technology leaders ranked addressing the lack of broadband access outside of school as a “very important” or “important” issue for their district to address.
- In the same survey, 68 percent of respondents reported that affordability is the greatest barrier to out-of-school broadband access.
Over time, the Lifeline Program has provided critical support for underserved Americans to help improve these trends.