The U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, & Transportation convened on July 17, 2013 to discuss ways to strengthen E-Rate (E-Rate 2.0: Connecting Every Child to the Transformative Power of Technology). The vast majority of those present at the hearing favored upgrades to the nation’s “wiring” of schools and libraries, but there were a select few who voiced opposition.
The hearing provided an opportunity for those present to explain how the E-Rate program has been outpaced: by advances in technology, prevalence of portable hardware, development of learning software, expectations of the public, and global competition. This NewsBreak presents some of the highlights of what works and what needs further work in a reinvigorated E-Rate 2.0 program.
Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV (R-W.Va.) pointed to some of the benefits that the U.S. has reaped from the E-Rate program in his opening statement at the hearing: “The impact of E-Rate on our schools has been nothing short of revolutionary. Since its creation seventeen years ago, E-Rate has provided more than $30 billion to connect the overwhelming majority of schools to the Internet.” As a result of this connectivity, students can take virtual field trips anywhere in the world—even to outer space (by visiting the International Space Station)—or learn a foreign language from a native speaker in another land.
“In 1996, when the Telecommunications Act was signed into law, only 14 percent of all classrooms were connected to the Internet,” according to Rockefeller. “Among the poorest schools, only five percent of classrooms were connected. The most recent statistics for classroom connection are amazing—over 92 percent of all classrooms are connected, and 95 percent of the poorest classrooms are connected … With the right investments in high capacity, high-speed Internet connections, we can expand E-Rate so that it will be able to provide future generations of children the opportunity to compete in an increasingly interconnected and data-driven world. There’s no doubt in my mind that E-Rate is the program that is giving more students a brighter future—one that we absolutely know is within reach.”
What Is E-Rate?
E-Rate is the federal government program that subsidizes school and library access to the internet. While some characterize the program as providing access to the latest digital technology, it’s clear from the testimony at the meeting that it falls short of that. Technology has advanced and the very definition of “basic connectivity” has changed in 15 years, and the E-Rate program needs to be updated to reflect this.
The American Library Association (ALA) website describes E-Rate as “the popular name for a far-sighted extension of Universal Service, as authorized by Congress in the Telecommunications Act of 1996.” The universal section of the law (Section 254) helps schools and libraries obtain access to state-of-the-art telecommunication services and technologies at discounted rates. E-Rate provides discounts of 20% to 90% on “telecommunications services, Internet access, and some closely related costs, such as inside wiring,” depending on economic need (percentage of school population eligible for the school lunch program), with additional adjustment made for rural schools.
The Commerce Committee called upon four witnesses to testify, each providing a series of examples from different perspectives as to how E-Rate has enabled the public to do today what could not have been imagined when the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was originally drafted.
Sheryl R. Abshire, CTO at Calcasieu Parish Public Schools in Louisiana, reminded the committee that the low bandwidth connections that were a marvel 15 years ago are not sufficient today. “E-Rate needs to move beyond assessing whether a classroom or library has an Internet connection to determining whether that connection’s speed meets the need of users who seek to access and use the most up-to-date digital content, courses, resources, services and tools.”
Abshire told the committee that funding support is inadequate: “We need a permanent increase in the E-Rate’s annual cap that, at a minimum meets current demand … The FCC should consider establishing a regular look-back period, perhaps every five years, to assess whether the program’s funding levels adequately meet demand,” she noted. “For E-Rate 2.0, I believe we need to set well-reasoned, achievable bandwidth goals for classroom and device connectivity that reflect the needs of modern education. I think it vital that these goals be based on data and that they take into account the different needs and demands of rural, urban and suburban schools and libraries. Like E-Rate’s funding level, I support periodic reappraisals and adjustments of these bandwidth goals.”
Linda H. Lord, state librarian at the Maine State Library and chair of the ALA’s E-Rate Task Force, noted: “The E-Rate program has transformed libraries for the digital age. It remains a critical federal telecommunications funding source that goes directly to libraries, and it has done a tremendous job in connecting them. Today we can boast that nearly all libraries provide public internet access and about 91 percent provide access to Wi-Fi, an increasingly important service in our communities. Though our libraries are connected at some level, the issue today is the quality or speed of that connection, which is often inadequate. We must strengthen and add to the capacity of the E-Rate program to ensure libraries and schools are equipped to engage students and learners in the 21st century.”
“In a 2010 FCC report on the E-rate program, 78 percent of applicants reported that their connectivity was inadequate,” noted Lord. “As we consider changes necessary to build a robust and sustainable E-rate program for everyone, we must also be mindful of some of the unique challenges our small and rural libraries have in securing adequate bandwidth and securing the E-Rate funding they require. We cannot contemplate fulfilling the needs of these students (or adult learners) unless our libraries have access to affordable, reliable, high-speed broadband connectivity.” Lord hopes that the investments made will be strategic and future-proof.
Patrick Finn, senior vice president of the U.S. Public Sector at Cisco, viewed E-Rate as the foundation for internet access in schools and libraries around the nation, but funding levels meet only 50% of requests. Since its inception, “E-rate has connected over 100,000 schools to the Internet—in all 50 states,” he said. “But the simple truth is that technology has changed dramatically over the last 15 years, and the E-rate program needs to keep up with the times.” America should be ready to support modern educational tools and devices. This requires modernizing the E-Rate program so that our children can compete with kids around the world. Finn urges policymakers to do three things to modernize the E-Rate program:
- Today, 80% of schools and libraries believe their broadband connections don’t meet their current needs. Funding levels should meet the needs of more schools and students, not fewer.
- Minimum bandwidth requirements should be adopted, varying based on the size of a school, to ensure that all schools have both in-building and districtwide networks that are operationally capable of supporting modern education technology and devices.
- Since current E-Rate rules no longer make sense, we need to recognize that internet access is an important element of a network, but districts have to be able to access content on their own servers for distribution within the district.
James G. Coulter, co-founder of TPG Capital and co-chair of the LEAD (Leading Education by Advancing Digital) Commission, sees the need for us to strengthen and modernize the E-Rate program or we could fall behind other countries that distribute tablets to millions of students. Where the U.S. focuses on connectivity of schools and classrooms, other nations are concentrating on connecting students 24/7. In the last century, Americans would never have thought to send children to schools that lacked heat or electricity; we should think of connectivity as equivalent in the 21st century.
“Just as technology marches on, so does the need for technological support for our schools,” noted Coulter. “Today, modern teaching methods utilizing digital tools are poised to revolutionize education around the world. Initially, technology was only in the principal’s office; now it is on the teacher’s desk and is moving into the hands of students. We are increasing our bandwidth users from five million teachers and administrators to 55 million students. Sadly, in spite of E-Rate’s success, today fewer than 25 percent of our nation’s schools have the high-speed bandwidth necessary to support this technology evolution … I believe expanding and strengthening E-Rate is a critical component for providing current and future generations the education and skills they need to compete in today’s global and technologically-enabled economy.”
In June, LEAD delivered its recommendations for the creation of a national roadmap for the adoption of education technology. During his testimony, Coulter highlighted several LEAD observations:
- Other counties have moved rapidly and decisively to make educational technology a national priority. Examples provided include Singapore and South Korea “who report 100 percent broadband wiring of their schools.” South Korea is eliminating paper textbooks in 2016. One hundred percent of Singaporean teachers are technology trained. Over the past few months, Turkey’s prime minister has been on a tour to identify a technology provider that will supply 10 million tablets to Turkish students by 2015. Thailand’s “One Tablet Per Child” policy aims to reduce the education gap between the nation’s urban rich and rural poor. By the end of 2014, the Thai government will have distributed handheld computers to 13 million schoolchildren.
- There is evidence that we are at a technological and teaching practice tipping point that will allow the long-held promise of educational technology to become a transformative and affordable reality. Due to the plummeting costs of tablet computers, innovative cloud-based software, and enterprise Wi-Fi technology, national implementation of educational technology in a large-scale fashion is affordable and achievable, according to Coulter.
- While the U.S. remains a hub of educational innovation, we face the risk of falling far behind in the deployment of digital learning technologies because of what he called a “lack [of] a clear national plan for digital education” in 16,000 independent school districts. Today, we expect fast Wi-Fi access with our coffee; it is troubling how many of our schools rely on slow and outdated internet connections, he noted. According to EducationSuperHighway, a highly respected nonprofit focused on removing the roadblocks to high-speed internet in our schools, only 23% percent of schools are sufficiently wired for today’s broadband demands and less than 10% are wired with the broadband that will be needed in 2017. The commission recommended the following five-point blueprint: 1) solve the infrastructure challenge by updating the wiring of our schools; 2) deploy devices nationally by 2020; 3) accelerate digital curriculum adoption; 4) fund and celebrate model schools; and 5) train teachers for digital teaching (human capital investment).
- E-Rate provides an invaluable tool for addressing the nation’s educational technology infrastructure challenges. It is time for a coherent, collective effort to modernize E-Rate and to implement the digital learning technology essential for 21st century schools.
Coulter ended his testimony by outlining three objectives for E-Rate 2.0:
- Update its goals to focus on internet infrastructure.
- Enable districts to invest in fiber connections to their schools.
- Modernize the program, increasing transparency, simplicity, and accountability.
Speed Is the Issue
Ranking member John Thune (R-S.D.) echoed the need for connectivity, particularly in remote areas—rural communities that comprise the last 5%—where service is more expensive: “This has always been the underlying issue at hand with universal service, and I look forward to seeing how the FCC addresses this reality through E-rate reform.”
Thune’s initial round of questions to the panel included an explanation of what’s fair in terms of setting bandwidth goals while subsidizing needy (i.e., rural) schools. Finn responded by saying that Cisco offered recommendations to build the minimum standards in bandwidth for schools based on the number of students so that we are not just driving the connectivity to the school, but we’re driving the connectivity and the benefits to the student. Other panelists focused on how the changes in funding formula of the E-Rate program, based on detailed demographic data and available program metrics, would benefit students and communities. The E-Rate formulaic approach has enabled economic development of rural communities using the fiber laid for schools, according to the panel members, so we should let the data that is available drive the decisions for the future program.
Some criticism was based on outdated information in terms of a complicated paper-based process for application filing, often requiring school districts to pay consultants to complete. However, as one panelist described her experience, the complicated paper-based process is now being streamlined for online filing: What once took two people 2 weeks to complete now only requires 4 hours.
Consortia are another way that state libraries approach E-Rate funding so individual libraries are not burdened with the application process; some states have E-Rate coordinators to help school districts through the process. Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) sees E-Rate 2.0 as a way to help us be more efficient, noting that schools pay too much for telecommunications simply because they don’t know otherwise.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) believes that local governments (school districts and counties) should determine what level of investment is needed in their communities. The panelists described how local technology plans are created and requests for funding through the E-Rate program are made based on how those plans are aligned with the needs of each community. Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) views E-Rate 2.0 as a long overdue opportunity to tweak a federal program to local needs. For some rural libraries that are open a limited number of hours per week, a T-1 line might be OK, but some libraries with high speed don’t find it sufficient to meet the demands of their communities.
Rockefeller noted that America is falling behind and asked what price we are paying as a country. Panelists noted that while America is still the hub of innovation, internet technology is deployed better in other countries. Technology requires scale, and countries such as South Korea can scale better than the U.S. can with 13,000 school districts that act independently and locally.
Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) notes that we’re in a mobile world and we need Wi-Fi to assure that it’s the individual student who benefits, not the school or the classroom that it connects. That’s how E-Rate 2.0 needs to define connectivity, particularly with wireless tablet access and the increasing prevalence of BYOD (bring your own device).
E-Rate has been transformational, but E-Rate 2.0 needs to reflect our needs today and prepare us for the future. After all, the students now learning in schools must be part of the technology-enabled workforce of the future. Testimony declared that high-speed interconnectivity is imperative; we cannot afford to miss this opportunity to do this. We cannot deny students, teachers, or the workforce requirements of today’s global economy. E-Rate needs to be expanded for a data-driven world, and the FCC notice of proposed rulemaking is expected to be coming soon.
Last month, President Barack Obama unveiled ConnectED, a new initiative to connect 99% of U.S. students to the internet through high-speed broadband and high-speed wireless within 5 years. He called on “the FCC to modernize and leverage its existing E-Rate program to meet that goal. The President also directed the federal government to make better use of existing funds to get Internet connectivity and educational technology into classrooms, and into the hands of teachers trained on its advantages. And he called on businesses, states, districts, schools and communities to support this vision.” In addition to upgrading connectivity, the initiative seeks to improve the skills of teachers and builds on private-sector innovation through “personalized education software that adapts to students’ needs.”
While Obama’s ConnectED initiative needs no Congressional action, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) introduced H.R. 521, the Transforming Education Through Technology Act, designed to help schools, districts, and states transform learning systems by using innovative technology. The following measures are a few of the highlights of the bill:
- Supports teachers and principals in using technology to increase college and career readiness, close achievement gaps, and engage all students
- Helps school districts build a technology infrastructure to make sure schools take full advantage of what technology has to offer
- Helps states improve student learning, upgrade assessments, and improve educator preparation and support
- Seeds innovation to create the learning environment of tomorrow using the best technology of today
On July 16, just 1 day before the hearing, FCC commissioner Ajil Pai spoke at the American Enterprise Institute about the need to establish a student-centered E-Rate program, shifting the focus from the facility to the individual. Pai outlined the following five key goals for the new program:
- Fairer fund distribution
- Focus on next-gen technologies for kids
- Greater transparency and accountability
- Fiscal responsibility
A copy of Pai’s remarks can be found on the FCC website.