The federal E-Rate program, which helps schools and libraries pay for Internet service, has been a rousing success. Sen. John Rockefeller, D-W.Va., says that 92 percent of the nation’s classrooms have Internet service, up from 14 percent in 1996, when the program started.
But new technology calls for a huge upgrade in the program to improve connection speeds necessary to accommodate today’s programs and services.
Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, has called for E-Rate 2.0. As he said, “basic Internet connectivity is not sufficient to meet our 21st century educational needs.”
The senator wants to create one-gigabit connections to every school in America. That is indeed a lofty goal. It would transform the Internet experience with speeds 60 to 100 times faster than most schools or homes now receive. He also wants wireless connections in every school building.
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has called for the nation’s mayors to support bringing one-gigabit Internet access to one community in each state by 2015, nowhere near as ambitious as Rockefeller’s call, but a good start.
The senator called for a gradual expansion of money devoted to the E-Rate, or Education Rate, program – an additional $5 billion to $9 billion in total funds over the rest of the decade.
This can happen without any action by a gridlocked Congress or the president. The FCC has the authority to reallocate money in the Universal Service Fund and to increase funding to the E-Rate program today.
The Universal Service Fund is a fee assessed by the FCC on the phone companies, and is noted on consumers’ bills. The $8.5 billion Universal Service Fund has four parts, with $2.3 billion devoted to the E-Rate program.
The fund also includes $4.5 billion to subsidize service to high-cost, mostly rural areas; $1.75 billion to provide telephone service to poor Americans; and about $100 million for a rural health care project.
In an open letter to Rockefeller, consultant John D. Harrington praised the senator’s call, but said the program must do more to connect every student to the Internet.
Harrington is CEO of Funds for Learning, LLC, a regulatory consulting firm that specializes exclusively in the E-Rate program for schools and libraries.
He says that while E-Rate has done a good job connecting buildings to the Internet, there is a critical need for internal wiring in schools and libraries to bring the benefits of the Internet directly to the users.
When E-Rate was originally established as part of the 1996 Telecom Act, it was very much ahead of its time. Since then, Internet technology has been transformed and yet, as Harrington said, the E-Rate program funding is still where it was back in 1996.
In our new information age, a basic Internet connection no longer meets the needs of schools and libraries. An upgraded system will prepare students to compete in the global economy.