Friday marked a landmark day in education technology in the United States as the Federal Communications Commission narrowly voted to modernize the E-Rate program, which provides schools and libraries with discounted Internet connectivity.
The vote approved a $2 billion funding package that will allow schools and libraries to significantly upgrade their wireless Internet connections without raising the program’s budget thanks, in part, to a reshuffling of the program’s priorities, which had gone unchanged since the program’s inception in 1996.
The FCC pledged to devote to Wi-Fi $1 billion in 2015 and another $1 billion in 2016 from unused E-Rate funds, dispensed to schools and libraries on a per-student or per-square-foot basis. After that, the FCC would target to keep spending $1 billion a year on Wi-Fi.
— Tom Wheeler (@TomWheelerFCC) July 11, 2014
The vote to modernize the program was met with enthusiasm in both the state technology community and amongst education technology vendors. Doug Levin, the executive director of the State Education Technology Directors Association, said in a statement, “with today’s vote, the FCC has taken a critical step to guaranteeing the 18 year-old E-rate program can continue to fulfill its critical role of ensuring equity of access to learning opportunities and supporting innovations in teaching and learning in a digital age.”
He continued: “ By acting today, the FCC has set robust broadband access to and throughout all schools and libraries as the E-rate’s primary goal, increased transparency of program operations and provided incentives for applicants to seek preferred pricing and services.” With increased Internet speeds, schools will have more access to the education technologies available to them, something that’s been argued will help the United States keep competitive in the global marketplace.
Increased Internet speeds will allow more school districts to give students personal computing devices, if they choose so, as they will now have the connectivity needs to accommodate them. The increased speeds will also help in areas like online testing, something that school districts around the nation are moving more toward but are struggling to keep up with the technological demands.
“The FCC is prioritizing connectivity for students and teachers in the classroom via Wi-Fi for the next two years, with the intention of continuing that funding into the future,” said Pat Finn, senior vice president of Cisco’s U.S. Public Sector Organization, in a blog post. “It will also help connect rural schools, while mitigating bureaucracy and red tape that impact the ability to quickly deploy the technology schools and libraries need.”
He continued: “To compete and succeed in the global marketplace, our students and teachers need to have access to the world’s libraries, scientific discoveries, and innovative educational tools at their fingertips. That’s where E-rate comes in. E-rate is the foundation for Internet access in public schools and libraries across America. But the simple truth is that technology in our schools and libraries hasn’t kept up with the times. Modern school networks need to be wireless, handle dense multi-media traffic, provide connectivity to students and teachers, and connect students in rural areas through collaborative technologies.”
The measure enacted Friday was scaled back from the original plan of $5 billion over five years after Republican commission members questioned whether that line of funding would be available.
Commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly voted against the proposal, with Pai calling the new measure another example of a “Washington-knows-best” system.
“The FCC has no business micromanaging the priorities of local schools and libraries,” Pai said when talking about how the proposal solely concentrates on Wi-Fi. “Local schools and libraries might be in a better position to set their own priorities.”
The subsidies will come from funding already available to the FCC, partly due to the commission moving subsidies away from supporting “non-broadband” technology like dial-up modems or pagers.
FedScoop’s Greg Otto contributed to this report.