The FCC launched its reform of the E-rate schools and
libraries subsidy on Friday, proposing to refocus the program from connectivity
to capacity and speed, collect more and better data, simplify the application
process and take other steps to modernize the program. The vote was unanimous.
The E-rate program provides discounted broadband service to
schools and libraries through the FCC's Universal Service Fund, a fund paid
into by telecom providers -- the fee is passed onto subscribers.
The proposed reform has three main goals: 1) ensuring
affordable access to 21st Century communications; 2) maximize its
cost-effectiveness; and 3) streamline its administration.
It tees up a number of ways to do that, including setting
bandwidth targets, phasing out support for outdated services like paging,
phasing in new services for support, and collecting more accurate and relevant
data. Its bandwidth targets mirror those of President Obama, who has asked the
FCC to use E-rate to help deliver 100 Mbps broadband per thousand students by
2015 and 1 gig by 2020.
Among the possible ways to streamline the process, the FCC
item asks whether it should move to all online-filing. It also asks about
allowing multiyear filing or consortia applications. Commissioner Rosenworcel
said both are good ideas.
The commission is also looking to more equitably distribute
the funds. It has heard from members of Congress whose constituents pay in more
than they get out, a criticism that has been applied to the overall Universal
Service Fund, of which E-rate is a subset.
"Classrooms most evolve beyond a 19th century
model," said FCC chairwoman Clyburn, who called the vote a pivotal moment.
She said that students needed high-speed connections "and they need them
now." Clyburn credited her colleague, Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel,
along with a number of members of Congress, with being pioneering voices for
Rosenworcel has been pushing for an E-Rate 2.0 approach that
the FCC proposals outlined Friday closely mirror, including setting bandwidth
targets and simplifying the process. "We fail our kids if we expect
digital-age learning will happen at dial-up speeds," Rosenworcel said.
Ajit Pai also voted for the item, which including seeking comment on his
approach to reform. Pai pointed out some of the problems with the program,
including that it is complicated, that there is a lack of information on the
program, that it continues to pay hundreds of millions to subsidize traditional
phone service, while hundreds of millions of dollars remains unspent elsewhere --
Rosenworcel also suggested it was time to stop supporting service like paging
so that money could be used for advanced communications support.
Pai is also concerned that reform not necessarily equated
with expanding the program.
Preceding the vote -- in essence providing an ad for
focusing on speed and capacity rather than connectivity -- was a presentation,
led by former Republican Education Secretary Margaret Spellings and LEAD
Commission member Jim Steyer (Common Sense Media) to focus on speed and
advanced technology so kids would have the best tools available to tap into the
In the presentation, Steyer outlined a five-point digital
education plan that would depend on those high-tech tools: 1) Solve the
infrastructure challenge by wiring every school and classroom with high speed
broadband; 2) put learning devices in hands of every child by 2020 (Steyer says
that ought to be doable by 2016); 3) adopt sophisticated digital curricula that
will encourage innovation -- in education, as everywhere, content is king; 4)
encourage and embrace model schools; and 5) train teachers.
Spellings pointed out that most schools (80%) say they don't
have sufficient capacity to meet current, much less, future needs.
White House last month announced a new initiative to get high-speed
broadband to America's schools and libraries.
That so-called ConnectED program has a goal of connecting
99% of students to high-speed wired and wireless broadband (speeds of no less
than 100 Mbps and preferably 1 Gbps) within five years. The president called on
the FCC and National Telecommunications and Information Administration to
"modernize and leverage" its E-rate program to achieve that goal.
"We commend the FCC's effort to update the
Universal Service Fund e-rate program," said Kathleen Grillo, senior VP of
Verizon, in response to the vote. "Modernizing the e-rate program is an
important part of the efforts to ensure that our education system will harness
the power of broadband to change the way teachers teach and students learn, and
prepare them to enter the digital economy. Verizon looks forward to working
with the FCC to modernize this important program."