Last month, during an address at the Washington Education Technology Policy Summit, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel announced that she will champion the schools and library program of the FCC’s Universal Service Fund, commonly known as the E-Rate program.
The E-Rate program was enacted under the Clinton administration and codified in Section 254 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Since then, the Schools and Libraries Division of the Universal Service Fund Administration has overseen the allocation of billions of dollars in funds that has brought basic connectivity to hundreds of thousands of schools and libraries around the nation. To put it in perspective, following the passage of the Act, only 14 percent of schools were connected to the Internet; now, that number has risen to more than 95 percent.
“I am committed to building on its record of success”
Commissioner Rosenworcel is no stranger to the program. She has worked on E-Rate for years while serving as counsel to the Senate Commerce Committee under Chairman Jay Rockefeller, in addition to serving on the agency staff and in private practice. Now, as an agency head, the commissioner stressed a need for continuous reassessment and support for E-Rate.
Over the past few years, demand for E-Rate has grown to double its allocated funds. Little can be done to meet this need unless the Commission is willing to increase its $2.3 billion investment in the program. Despite the growing demand for E-Rate support, a 2011 FCC study indicated that 80 percent of schools and libraries do not believe their broadband needs are currently being met. In her speech, Commissioner Rosenworcel cited a recent Harris Interactive, Inc., survey that found that roughly half of E-Rate schools access the Internet at speeds of 3 Megabits per second or less, and only 5 percent offer computer science courses.
Although the program is largely considered highly successful, it is outdated and unable to meet demand. Commissioner Rosenworcel has set out a step-by-step mission plan that will revolutionize the program and achieve what she calls “E-Rate 2.0.”
Stairway to Rosenworcel’s Vision
In order to “protect what we have already done, build on it, and put this program on a course to provide higher speed and greater opportunities,” Commissioner Rosenworcel outlined four steps to achieve E-Rate 2.0:
Increase E-Rate funding so that it can handle the increasing demand. The current program size was set in 1998, three years before smartphones became commercially available in the U.S.
With a reallocation and reevaluation of Universal Service Fund levels and the elimination of waste, fraud, and abuse, the Commission should be able to find enough funding to get E-Rate 2.0 off the ground. While Commissioner Rosenworcel applauded the Commission’s recent reform efforts, which saved more than $200 million in 2012 and are on track to save upwards of $400 million this year, she noted that more auditing is needed.
By the 2015 school year, every school should have access to 100 Megabits per 1000 students; by 2020, every school should have access to 1 Gigabit per 1000 students. In order to achieve these ambitious goals, Commissioner Rosenworcel suggested that the Commission update the E-Rate application form to collect information about the applicants’ existing capacity and projected needs. With that data, the Commission should be able to track the program’s progress and increase its effectiveness and efficiency. Commissioner Rosenworcel also noted that we should not forget our nation’s libraries during this push forward.
Encourage and institute new and creative public-private partnerships. Since the private sector will be the primary beneficiary of a strong workforce that is ready for the digital age, it only makes sense that companies in related industries should join the Commission in investing in their future employees by creating of cost-effective technologies, educational applications, and devices.
Simplify the process for applicants. Because the current E-Rate system might be deterring small and rural schools from applying for funding, Commissioner Rosenworcel suggested multi-year applications as a means of reducing paperwork and administrative expenses for applicants.
Although Commissioner Rosenworcel is fairly new to her seat, her decades long fight for the E-Rate program indicates that the program has a very strong advocate at the Commission. With the steps set forth by Commissioner Rosenworcel and continued discussion and problem solving by all interested parties, the program will be able to continue to thrive and grow over the next few years. Commissioner Rosenworcel put it best: “We need to reboot, reinvigorate, and recharge the E-Rate program. Now is the time for doing it. Now is the time for E-Rate 2.0.”
Latoya Livingston, Esq., is the Earle K. Moore Fellow at the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council, as well as a legal journalist for BroadbandandSocialJustice.org. Her work focuses on filing legal briefs with the Federal Communications Commission and the federal courts, meeting with politicians, government personnel, and industry executives, and speaking at conferences and meetings to educate others about the communications needs of minorities, women, and low-income people in the United States. Aside from performing traditional legal work, Ms. Livingston also serves as the spectrum policy expert for MMTC.