FCC chairman’s speech highlights eRate restructuring plans to get money to schools NOW
In what could be one of the most heartening examples of putting money where a mouth is, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler just announced that the eRate will change in three significant ways to put money into the hands of schools immediately in order to provide internet access and close the digital divide.
“A little known fact about today’s eRate program is that only about half of the program’s funds go for broadband connectivity,” explained Wheeler. “Well less than half goes for the kind of 100 mbps and higher speeds necessary for today’s learning environment. In a 2013 National School Speed Test 72 percent of schools–that is nearly 40 million students didn’t have the access speeds they needed.”
Wheeler’s speech, part of National Digital Learning Day hosted at the Library of Congress, comes a day after President Obama announced over $750 million in private and public investment for high-speed internet in schools. (Read: “What to do with millions of dollars for education technology.”)
Wheeler related a recent experience at a middle school where the students described how the network would crash if too many of them pushed “Enter” simultaneously, and having to walk around the room holding their tablets up until they got a WiFi signal.
“Catherine Sandoval, one of the leading lights in state utility commissions, told me how students in one California school had to be bussed to another school to take the online core curriculum tests,” said Wheeler, “and how students in Beverly Hills were advantaged over students in less affluent schools because they were used to taking tests online whereas other students were not.”
“When 80 percent of teachers and administrators in schools participating in the eRate program say they do not have the bandwidth necessary to meet their educational needs, we have a problem that must be fixed,” he continued.
3 ways the eRate is being fixed immediately
“By applying a business-like approach, we have identified opportunities for greater productivity within the program, including significant improvements to the way funds are deployed,” explained Wheeler. “It is these improvements, for example, that will play a major role in allowing us to double, to $2 billion, the money to be spent on high-speed connections beginning this year.”
Wheeler proposed three ways the FCC will restructure granting funds to schools, allowing schools to get the money they need for connectivity, faster:
1. Applications that get the most students the most broadband will be reviewed and approved more quickly, and this doesn’t just mean students in large metropolitan areas.
“The current program, for instance, penalizes schools that apply jointly with other schools; because their applications are more complex, they often take longer to resolve,” he noted. “Henceforth they will be prioritized. We can start fixing that immediately.”
Those schools participating in the program that are eligible for Priority 1 services in 2014 will also be funded.
“There’s another advantage to consortia and other joint applications—they tend to get better prices for equipment and services by buying in bulk,” he explained. “This means that existing funds go farther.
2. Old applications will be reviewed in a more efficient manner.
Old applications, meaning appeals, holds and other outstanding requests, will be handled in a better fashion, said Wheeler. “In some cases, these processes have simply been too slow, with the result that hundreds of millions of dollars that could have been funding broadband is instead tied up in reserve accounts. We will get to work immediately to get those funds moving.”
3. Funds will focus on libraries.
“While we talk a lot about the connected school, we cannot overemphasize the crucial role of the connected library,” Wheeler emphasized. “In community after community the library is the only place where students can go after school for free Internet access to complete their assignments.”
According to recent research, a majority of American school children go to the public library to do school work. And for many of those students, it is the only link to the internet outside of school.
“That is really important when over 75 percent of K-12 teachers are assigning internet-required homework,” he said. “And during the summer, libraries are the only place for many students to go to continue their online exploration and learning.”
He continued, “The eRate is a program for schools and libraries. Or, let me put it another way: libraries and schools.”
Wheeler concluded his speech by saying the next “concrete step” will be the release of a Public Notice in the coming weeks that will seek comment on a targeted set of issues—issues on how to appropriately phase out legacy services, including low-bandwidth connections, and re-prioritize on broadband.
Wheeler hopes this process will be completed before students return to classrooms in the fall.