This week, the Commission released the text of an order that modernizes and upgrades the E-rate program to bring fast, affordable Internet access to schools and libraries across the country. Despite the great success of the E-rate program to date, broadband connectivity in schools and libraries is too slow to keep up with the innovative high-tech tools that are now being used across the United States. In fact, the Commission conducted a survey which found that almost 80 percent of E-rate recipients believe their current Internet connections are not sufficient to meet their current needs.
To begin to address this gap, the Commission’s order will make it easier for schools and libraries to get the highest speeds for the lowest prices by increasing their options for broadband providers. The key provisions in the order include:
- Allowing participants to use E-rate funds to connect to the Internet in the most cost-effective way possible, including via unused fiber optic lines already in place across the country and through existing state, regional and local networks;
- Making permanent a waiver that allows schools to create "School Spots" by opening up their doors to greater community use of E-rate supported services and facilities. Schools are already taking advantage of the existing waiver allowing them the option to provide Internet access to the local community after regular school hours. We’d love to hear your community use "success story" so please let us know if you are opening your doors as well.
- Launching a pilot program to support off-campus wireless Internet connectivity for portable learning devices;
- Indexing the cap on E-rate funding to inflation so that the program can more fully meet the needs of students and communities;
- Allowing the program to support connections to the dormitories of schools that serve students facing unique challenges, such as Tribal schools or schools for children with physical, cognitive, or behavioral disabilities;
- Bolstering protections against waste, fraud, and abuse by codifying competitive bidding requirements and clarifying restrictions on gifts from potential service providers; and
- Streamlining the E-rate application process.
Having worked on E-rate issues for 4½ years, I am excited to be a part of the process by which the Commission is taking steps to make E-rate an even greater tool for educators and librarians in a broadband world. The Commission’s actions will help ensure that America’s students can learn to think and develop the skills necessary to contribute productively to our society.
The Chairman summed up the potential impact of this order in his statement adopting the order: "At connected schools, students can access the best libraries in the country, the best learning tools, and the best teachers, wherever they are. A high-school student in a rural town without a calculus teacher can learn calculus remotely, or physics, or Mandarin. Distance learning isn’t a substitute for education reform, but it can enhance reform; it can help schools and students in struggling communities have real opportunity, real access, to the best education can offer."