Wednesday, September 22, 2010

FCC Bolsters E-rate Program

Following recommendations of the National Broadband Plan, the FCC upgraded and modernized the E-rate program, which funds Internet access in public schools and libraries across the country.

Although 97% of American schools and nearly all public libraries now have basic Internet access, the basic level of broadband connectivity is now too slow to keep up with traffic demands.

The FCC said its E-rate Order makes it easier for schools and libraries to get the highest speeds for the lowest prices by increasing their options for broadband providers and streamlining the application process.

Key elements of the new E-rate include:

Super-Fast Fiber: Participants may use E-rate funds to connect 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.

School Spots: The FCC is opening the door to "School Spots" -- where schools have the option to provide Internet access to the local community after students go home. For instance, schools with 1 Gbps fiber access could help neighborhoods that otherwise lack such access. The FCC sees the School Spots as a major step toward the National Broadband Plan's goal of connecting an anchor institution in every community.

Learning On-the-Go: The FCC is launching a pilot program that supports off-campus wireless Internet connectivity for mobile learning devices. Education doesn't stop at the schoolyard gate or the library door. Digital textbooks and other innovative wireless devices allow students to learn in a real-world context, inside the classroom and beyond. Because of their low cost and accessibility, these mobile devices can also help advance digital equality, particularly for children from economically disadvantaged communities.

21st Century E-rate Program: The Order will begin indexing the cap on E-rate funding to inflation in a fiscally responsible manner, so that the program can more fully meet the needs of students and communities. Since 1997 when the E-rate program started, inflation has raised costs 30 percent but the program has remained capped, significantly decreasing its effective purchasing power. E-rate can also now be used for 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.

In addition, the FCC will codifying E-rate competitive bidding requirements and clarifying ethics obligations so as to stop waste, fraud, and abuse. It also promises to streamline the E-rate application process for educators and librarians.