Federal Communications Commission

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Opening the Door to E-Rate in Our Communities

September 28th, 2010 by Julia Benincosa

Last week, the FCC created “School Spots” by allowing schools to authorize community use of Internet connections funded by the E-rate after school hours.  Earlier this year, the FCC granted a temporary waiver so that West Virginia and other states could move ahead immediately with community use projects, and our guest blogger Julia Benincosa, who is the West Virginia E-Rate and Instructional Technology Coordinator, writes about how the policy is already helping close the broadband gap in West Virginia.  We’re encouraging other schools who have experimented with this open-door policy to tell us about their experience, which they can do here.

For years, West Virginia was frustrated by restrictions in the E-rate program that kept school computer access cloistered for use solely by teachers, staff and students within the building.  Many opportunities for schools to partner with the community and collaborate with parents to enrich student learning could not be realized due to historical E-rate rules.  Under the previous rules, if "ineligible users" accessed the network, schools were required to allocate the cost to non- E-rate funding sources, which could be a difficult and confusing task. Since no one wanted to jeopardize precious funding during times when budgets were already shrinking, schools opted not to participate.
As more and more educators recognized the benefits that after-hours use of school Internet connections could provide, it became clear that changes were needed to eliminate barriers to broader parental and community involvement.  At the same time, the FCC was making a number of logical and positive improvements in the E-rate program. The supportive atmosphere of the FCC encouraged us make the case for a waiver that would allow more community use of E-rate-funded networks.   With the assistance of our E-rate contacts at the county level, we compiled a list of ways that a more flexible E-Rate program would better meet the educational needs of our communities and students.
Of course, student instruction is always our number one priority.  We made it clear that we were only asking for community use during times when school is not in session...evenings, weekends, holiday breaks and summers.  Since the Internet isn't turned off during those times, it was available and begging to be utilized to help close the broadband gap and meet the broader educational needs of the community.   The WV Department of Education shared its list of helpful community uses at the federal level and soon after, the Community Use Waiver became part of the NPRM (Notice of Proposed Rulemaking) that was released in the spring of 2010. 

This waiver allows for community members to utilize school networks, at the discretion of the school, without requiring burdensome cost-allocation and without jeopardizing E-rate funding.  While still in its infancy, this waiver has great promise, and the Internet utilization will definitely grow exponentially.  We have seen utilization by the public in Morgantown, West Virginia, where Suzie Martin, a Library Media-Technology Integration Specialist, has her library open after hours and during the summer and works with parents and students in a reading program that utilizes the Internet.  This change has also allowed parental training to occur for distance learning programs that allow students to be educated at home and other state initiatives.

For example, the Acuity and Compass Odyssey programs enables students to continue their instruction from home using the Internet. Without training on how to access these sites, parents would be less likely to participate in the education of their children.

A more visible example occurred during the Upper Big Branch mining disaster.  Since students were on spring break, Raleigh County's Marsh Fork Elementary School became an emergency site for the Governor and (MSHA) Mine Safety and Health Administration representatives.  They met for news conferences and state information was provided to media from around the world for updates and information to chronicle the desperate, 100-hour rescue effort.

Thanks to the FCC's Community Use Waiver, there are new opportunities emerging daily.  There is currently a pilot program developing that will train parents of Preschool students in the use of the World Wide Web for educational, personal and occupational use.

These opportunities highlight how the E-rate program can help to show families the importance of broadband Internet access in the home.  We have reached a time when having Internet access is as vital for families as having a telephone, and are glad the E-rate can now do a better job of helping West Virginia families to take advantage of this great 21st century educational resources.

These opportunities highlight how the E-rate program can help to show families the importance of broadband Internet access.  We have reached a time when having Internet access is as vital for families as having a telephone, and believe that these improvements in E-rate will help families in West Virginia – and across the nation -- take advantage of this great 21st century educational resource.

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