Magazine article Momentum

New Proposals for a 21st Century E-Rate Program

Magazine article Momentum

New Proposals for a 21st Century E-Rate Program

Article excerpt

The E-rate program was created through the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which mandated the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to provide affordable telecommunications and Internet access for all of the nation's schools and libraries. More than half of all Catholic schools have taken advantage of the program since its inception in 1998. Financed through the Schools and Libraries Program, schools may receive discounted telephony, Internet, broadband and other telecommunications services from telecom providers selected by the school. The discounts range from 20 to 90 percent, with higher amounts granted to schools and libraries in lowincome and rural communities.

When initiated, the program was funded at $2.5 billion annually, considered then to be sufficient to bridge the digital divide and enable all schools and libraries to access digital learning opportunities. The unforeseen rapid advances in telecommunications soon rendered the funding insufficient to meet needs, leaving most schools unable to build the needed infrastructure for 21st century learning environments. In most years, the E-rate applications show a demand for telecommunications services that is double the available funding, so that only the schools with the largest number of children in poverty have been able to receive high speed connectivity. All applicants receive telecommunications services, primarily for phones and Internet service, but for most schools, the E-rate program has fallen short on meeting the goal of connecting classrooms with high-speed broadband where the greatest educational benefits would be realized.

Increased Demand

Innovations in digital learning technologies and the need to use the Internet to connect students and teachers to more interactive means of acquiring information have created an increased demand for bandwidth in schools. In an FCC survey of E-rate recipients, nearly half of respondents reported lower speed Internet connectivity than they need. Several proposals are being advanced to address the need for meaningful classroom connectivity.

President Obama has put forth a new initiative called ConnectED that has three components: 1) connect 99 percent of America's students to the Internet through high-speed broadband and high-speed wireless within five years and require the FCC to modernize the E-Rate program to meet that goal, 2) use federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) funds to get Internet connectivity and educational technology into classrooms and train teachers to use it effectively and 3) challenge and collaborate with businesses and states to leverage support for additional support. The president's proposal to infuse more funding by making different use of some of the ESEA title programs may be problematic for equitable inclusion of students in private and religious schools.

An E-rate 2.0 plan has been promoted by some tech consulting companies and embraced by one of the FCC Commissioners, Jessica Rosenworcel. She identified five components of Erate 2.0: significant funding increases, identification of appropriate broadband capacity (bandwidth of 100 Mbps for every 1,000 students), simplification of the E-rate application process, public-private partnerships to invest in education-enhancing technologies for classrooms and allowing after-school broadband access for the general public. Some aspects of this initiative are being incorporated into a new FCC proposal that does not raise the funding levels for E-rate.

The FCC is now initiating a full review of E-rate to modernize it to better meet the needs of a digitalized learning environment. …

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