How E-rate modernization became the catalyst for digital equity in schools
In 2014, the FCC modernized the E-rate program with the objective of closing the K-12 digital divide within five years. This catalyzed a sea change in the broadband available in America’s schools, and as a result 35 million students have been connected to digital learning and educational opportunity.
The impact of E-rate modernization is most evident in the acceleration of the pace of upgrades in K-12 broadband networks. As seen in Chart 14, we have
connected 22% more schools to the broadband they need for digital learning than was expected prior to E-rate modernization. This puts us roughly two years
ahead of schedule in reaching the goal of connecting 100% of America’s schools to the FCC’s 100 kbps per student goal.
The success of E-rate modernization can also be seen in its impact on the cost effectiveness of the program. In 2014, it was projected that meeting the FCC
long-term goal of 1 Mbps per student of Internet access would cost E-rate $11 billion per year7 — without any funding for Wi-Fi. Today, thanks to the impact of E-rate’s price transparency provisions on broadband costs, meeting the 1 Mbps goal is projected to cost just $3.3 billion per year, including $1 billion per year for Wi-Fi upgrades.
Why has E-rate modernization worked so well?
The success of E-rate in delivering on our nation’s promise to connect all of America’s students has been driven by five key actions:
1. Setting clear connectivity goals
By setting explicit connectivity and infrastructure goals for schools, the FCC empowered school districts and states to recognize and take action on the important role broadband infrastructure plays in digital learning.
2. Improving affordability through price transparency
By making available all data about the broadband that schools were buying, from whom and at what price, the FCC created price transparency in the K-12 broadband market. This has led to lower costs and dramatically more bandwidth for schools.
3. Driving the expansion of fiber networks
The FCC recognized that access to digital learning required schools to have access to modern broadband infrastructure, and that for the vast majority of schools this meant connecting them to fiber. To accomplish this, the FCC expanded the use of E-rate funds to pay for fiber construction costs (special construction), gave schools access to the same competitive choices as businesses, and created incentives for states to provide resources for fiber construction.
These changes have been embraced by state and district leaders, reduced the number of schools without fiber by 90%, and remain critical to finishing the job
of closing the connectivity gap.
4. Bringing Wi-Fi to every classroom
Prior to E-rate modernization, few schools had received funding to put Wi-Fi in their classrooms. By increasing the resources available in the E-rate program and allocating to every school a $150 per student Wi-Fi budget, the FCC dramatically increased the percentage of schools that have received Wi-Fi funding, more than tripled the number of schools with robust Wi-Fi, and paved the way for every classroom to be connected by 2020.
5. Focusing on broadband
Eliminating outdated services such as pagers and voice telephony has freed up the resources required to deliver on the FCC’s connectivity promise both today
and in the future. Combined with improvements in affordability, we are now significantly closer to being able to meet the FCC’s long-term K-12 broadband
goals within the current E-rate budget.
Ensuring the stability of the E-rate program through 2020 and beyond is
critical to delivering on our promise to connect America’s K-12 students.
The E-rate program has been the foundation for dramatic progress toward our goal of bringing high-speed broadband to every public school classroom. To fulfill the FCC’s promise to America’s K-12 students, it is essential that the Commission preserve key elements of the current E-rate program through 2020:
- Allow districts the full five years they were promised to utilize their $150 per student Category 2 budgets to complete their Wi-Fi upgrades.
- Simplify and continue access to the same competitive fiber options available to businesses, including dark fiber and self-provisioning made available by E-rate modernization.
- Maintain the current funding cap to ensure that districts have the
resources required to bring fiber to every school and meet the
FCC’s long-term goal of 1 Mbps per student of Internet access.
- Reaffirm the focus on broadband by resisting calls to reinstate
- Preserve the needs-based approach to allocating E-rate funds to ensure that E-rate continues to serve schools that need it most.
At the same time, the Commission should follow through on the objectives it laid
out during the FCC’s August 2017 Rural Broadband Month and take steps to
accelerate the expansion of fiber networks to rural America by:
- Accelerating the pace of approvals by eliminating frequent rule changes and streamlining lengthy bureaucratic reviews of fiber projects that are delaying educational opportunity for the hardest-to-reach kids — those whom E-rate was originally designed to help.
- Fully leveraging the FCC’s investment in rural broadband by allowing service providers to dig once and pull extra fiber in E-rate-funded trenches to serve the entire community in places where E-rate brings high-speed broadband to a school or library.
- Addressing the district fiber funding gap by using funds already available in E-rate to help service providers bring fiber to all rural schools. This can be accomplished by increasing the E-rate reimbursement for fiber construction to 90% whenever states put up 10%.
With E-rate, we can close the school connectivity gap by 2020. Without it, we will fail to deliver on our promise to America’s students.