Help increase E-Rate

What you need to know: Hundreds of education stakeholders spoke out about the importance of E-Rate during the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) public comment period. Thank you to the 600+ ISTE supporters who weighed in.

In ISTE’s comments to the FCC (PDF), we shared feedback from our members and emphasized five key areas:

  1. The E-Rate program is extremely successful.
  2. E-Rate’s funding levels have not kept pace with demand, and the program needs an increase to at least $5 billion annually.
  3. E-Rate needs national bandwidth goals and entity-appropriate targets.
  4. We support focusing the E-Rate program on broadband connectivity and recommend giving Priority I status to wireless LAN controllers and wireless access points.
  5. We support increasing discounts for rural schools and libraries for Priority I and Priority II services to ensure attainment of broadband goals.

Why it matters: Billions of dollars in additional funding are needed to support an updated E-Rate program to ensure all U.S. students have high-speed broadband and wireless. Success would be a game-changer for learners living in a connected world — and for the educators supporting them.

The E-Rate program

ISTE recommends increasing E-Rate funding to $5B

Today’s learning environments require fast and reliable school broadband networks. Student collaboration and communication, blended and online learning, online assessments, data-driven decision making, and parental communication are just a few of the ways educators, students and parents rely on school broadband networks. However, in far too many cases, school networks are not able to meet these demands, and schools that are able to keep up today are unsure how they will keep up with future demands. The effective implementation of digital learning is vital if students are to meet the Common Core State Standards and graduate from high school and college and become career ready.

Background

The E-Rate program is a part of the Universal Service program, a support mechanism that was created in 1934 to ensure affordable phone service for residents in high-cost areas and for low-income consumers. The E-Rate program, authorized under the Telecommunications Act of 1996, extends universal service support to public and private schools and public libraries, providing them with discounts of 20%-90% for telecommunications services and internet access (i.e., Priority I services) and internal connections/wiring (i.e., Priority II services). The program funds all Priority I service requests first and then uses remaining funds to fulfill Priority II requests, with those applications prioritized based on need. E-Rate funds are not appropriated, but instead are collected (along with the other universal service programs) as fees on consumers’ telephone bills. The E-Rate program is subject to an annual cap of $2.25 billion, which has remained unchanged since the program’s inception save for an annual adjustment based on inflation that started in 2010.

Since its inception in 1998, E-Rate has played a major role in increasing public school classroom internet connections, from 14% in 1998 to more than 95% today. The E-Rate program has also helped low-income, minority and rural students gain near equal access to the internet as their peers around the country.

Despite these impressive figures, E-Rate’s mission is incomplete. School bandwidth needs continue to increase as educators and students capitalize on cutting-edge, but bandwidth-intensive, digital applications and services. While nearly all classrooms are now connected, many have inadequate bandwidth to meet instructional needs. In a 2010 FCC survey, nearly 80% of E-Rate participants indicated that their broadband connections do not fully meet their needs and 39% cited cost of service as a barrier to fully meeting their internet needs. Moreover, the classroom itself is rapidly changing. Project Tomorrow’s Speak Up 2012 online nationwide survey of more than 364,000 students showed that 64% of middle school students wish to access online textbooks and 73% want the ability to look up information on the internet whenever they have the need. Educators are also clamoring to include more technology in the classroom. A recent survey by Common Sense Media shows that 92% of teachers would like to use more ed tech in the classroom than they do now. Lastly, more and more states are moving to online assessments and the Common Core assessments are scheduled to be administered online beginning in 2014-2015.

One of the major challenges faced by the E-Rate program in recent years has been the inadequacy of the $2.25 billion annual funding cap.  For the two most recent funding years — 2012 and 2013 — demand for E-Rate support was at or above $5 billion, more than double the available funding. With 2013 Priority I demand at $2.71 billion, an increase of 10.8% over last year, it remains unclear whether sufficient funds will be available to fully support requests by 90%-eligible applicants for Priority II services. If demand trends persist, with Priority I demand continuing to climb, prorating of E-Rate support for Priority I and II services is possible.

2013 FCC rulemaking to modernize the E-Rate program

In June 2013, President Obama announced the ConnectEd Initiative, which includes the goal of connecting 99% of students to high-speed broadband within the next 5 years through an increased investment in the E-Rate program.  In response, the FCC issued a sweeping Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) to modernize E-Rate for the 21st century.  This comprehensive NPRM covered many complex issues including level of funding, supported services, funding priorities, discount levels and the application process. During the comment period, nearly 1,400 comments were submitted, many by ISTE members and with ISTE’s assistance. Through ISTE’s website, nearly 600 educators — teachers, chief technology officers, principals, superintendents and more — from 45 states, D.C., Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands answered that call and supplied comments that ISTE then submitted to the FCC.

ISTE’s comments

ISTE also submitted its own in-depth comments that celebrated the program’s accomplishments and urged an increase of the program’s annual cap to $5 billion. ISTE’s case for additional E-Rate funding boiled down to three key points:

  • Without an increase in the program’s annual cap, the gap between what the program can provide and what schools and libraries need will only widen;
  • Without an increase in funding, the low-income, rural and remote schools and libraries that are most in need, and to which E-Rate’s founders and this Commission made priorities, will be confined to support for increasingly limited Priority I services and will most assuredly lose ground to their better-heeled counterparts; and
  • Without an increase in funding, efforts to advance digital learning — be they 1:1 initiatives, BYOD programs, digital textbooks or online assessments — will be undermined, if not torpedoed.
ISTE’s comments also supported setting national bandwidth-focused goals for the E-Rate program. ISTE argued that while E-Rate has succeeded in connecting nearly all American classrooms, 21st century classrooms and new digital tools and services require higher speed connections. Specifically, ISTE endorsed setting preliminary targets of 100 mbps/1000 students and longer-term goals of 1gbps/1000 students. ISTE cautioned that the goals should be scalable, taking into account the differing needs, geographic circumstances and costs of each particular school and library applicant. Additionally, ISTE stated that the goals should not serve as mandates that punish schools that fail to reach targets nor should they operate as ceilings, limiting the amount of bandwidth a school may decide it needs to implement its digital learning vision.

ISTE’s comments also supported focusing the E-Rate program on broadband connectivity by moving wireless LAN controllers and wireless access points from Priority II to Priority I. With schools instituting BYOD programs, 1:1 technology initiatives and other programs that are increasing the number of mobile wireless devices, reliable classroom WiFi service has become especially crucial and the need for more sophisticated wireless access points is proving critical.

ISTE’s comments also proposed that all rural applicants receive an additional 5% increase on top of their current discount rate for both Priority I and Priority II services. ISTE’s proposal reflects needs expressed in filings by rural educators in Missouri and Alaska as well as the State Departments of Education in Kansas and South Dakota that underscored the need for rural students to access teachers and courses unavailable in their schools and the higher broadband costs rural areas face. It also takes into account the fact that most rural areas do not have eligible discounts high enough to receive Priority II internal connections funding under the current system. To ensure fairness, ISTE insisted that, even with this bump, no applicant receive higher than the top discount allowed by the E-Rate program, which is currently 90%.

ISTE CEO Brian Lewis' Call to Action for Increasing Funding for the E-Rate Program

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