Earlier this month the Federal Communications Commission approved a plan to spend $2 billion over the next two years on providing schools and libraries with enhanced Wi-Fi capabilities.
The proposal aims to modernize the FCC’s existing E-Rate program in an effort to meet goals set by President Obama in a directive last year to expand 99 percent of U.S. students’ access to broadband. Major industry players like Facebook, Netflix and Bloomberg LP all sent letters to the commission supporting the initiative because “the plan will make dramatic progress in bringing high-speed connectivity to classrooms.”
More schools have Internet, but that’s not enough
According to Businessweek, the number of U.S. classrooms with a connection to the Internet have increased by 83 percent since the E-Rate program was created in 1998. School administrators, however, say simply being connected isn’t enough. Higher speeds and better service are becoming increasingly necessary and obtaining those things increases costs at a time when school budgets are being dramatically reduced. Sixty percent of schools in the U.S. do not have sufficient Wi-Fi access, according to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, and so far the E-Rate program has only been able to improve that access in 5 percent of schools and 1 percent of libraries.
“Technology has changed, the needs of students and library users have changed, and now E-Rate has changed,” said Wheeler. “No responsible business would stick with an IT plan developed in 1998.”
Removing obsolete services, increasing funding
The recently approved plan seeks to provide a larger portion of schools with improved Wi-Fi by revamping the E-Rate program. The initiative pays for telecom services for schools and libraries, but those still include obsolete services like paging and landline phones. By redirecting funding for outdated systems to the Wi-Fi program, more schools will be able to benefit. According to FCC acting managing director Jon Wilkins, the phaseout of obsolete services will create savings of $350 million next year and will grow to $950 million by the program’s fifth year. The remainder of E-Rate’s budget comes from monthly fees telecom providers are required to charge their clients.
According to Wheeler, the commitment of $1 billion to schools and libraries in 2015 means that millions of students will be have access to increased opportunities.
“The new plan will make E-rate dollars go farther by creating processes to drive down prices and increase transparency on how program dollars are spent,” said Wheeler. “And it will simplify the application process for schools and libraries, making the program more efficient while reducing the potential for fraud and abuse.”
The approval vote also made it possible for E-Rate’s annual funding, which has been capped at $2.25 billion since the program started, to be increased later this year. Currently, the initiative’s formula for allocating funding is based on schools’ student numbers and libraries’ physical size, but this method has come under scrutiny by members of Congress and will likely be revised.