E-rate Reform: Making the Conversation (Wi-Fi) Accessible

Sitting in Atlanta International Airport, the terminal is brimming with travelers connecting to the airport’s free wireless Internet. Upon connecting, passengers are greeted with the message “Wi-Fi Before You Fly” across the homepage. This isn’t an anomaly. Free public Wi-Fi has rapidly expanded from coffee shops to an increasing share of businesses, parks, and dozens of other public spaces—so why shouldn’t public schools have Wi-Fi too?

The proposal from Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler—passed this past Friday on a 3-2 party-line vote—tries to move our schools one step closer to that ideal by prioritizing Wi-Fi investment for this modern update of the E-rate program.

The approved changes to the E-rate program will phase down support for telecommunications services like telephone service, while dialing up support over the next five years for wireless connectivity (Wheeler has reassured stakeholders that this will not crowd out funding for basic connections to schools). The first two years will be paid for through $2 billion in funding that the FCC has already identified—and those last three years will be filled in with savings from phasing out old telecommunications services and cost-savings from increased program efficiencies.

The two Republican members of the Commission seem skeptical of Wheeler’s funding plan and voted against the proposal (for the record, the two other Democrats seem a bit skeptical on parts of the plan as well). To his credit, Wheeler has indicated that later this fall (most likely after midterm elections) the Commission will revisit the issue of sustainable program funding through a new public notice. Funding aside though, the simpler message of “Wi-Fi to the Schools” may obscure larger structural challenges for schools and libraries of providing high-speed Internet service.

Though we increasingly rely on wired or wireless connectivity for virtually every aspect of our professional and personal lives—emails, cloud-based storage, banking, online education, social networking—many people are in the dark about the underlying technology infrastructure that enables those connections to work properly, and operate at high speeds.

Groups like EducationSuperHighway and the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA)—who have been leading voices in the E-rate reform process—identified different priorities for modernizing the program. Just this past April, EducationSuperHighway released a report which posed a simple question: How do we connect 99 percent of students in five years? Their answer:

Specifically, the FCC can accelerate bandwidth upgrades by increasing E-rate’s investment in broadband, ensuring that schools have access to the essential inputs of fiber and internal connections, empowering schools with price transparency, and maximizing the choices available to schools.

Yes, they mention internal connections (i.e. Wi-Fi), but the first step they identified to connect all students was to connect schools to fiber (something we at New America have emphasized as well). SETDA also published a 2012 report which identified ambitious speed targets—both for districts’ Wide Area Networks, which connect buildings within the school district (important, in part, for secure information transfer between the district and schools), as well as the external connection with Internet Service Providers that provides access to the Internet.

The Broadband Imperative 

The Broadband Imperative

These priorities—upgrading the wired infrastructure to schools to allow for greater speeds, and setting targets for minimum connectivity needs—when coupled with an increase in program funding to meet current and future demand represent a more realistic and comprehensive vision of what’s needed to actually connect public schools to 21st century connectivity.

But sometimes, you take what you can get.

These two organizations, along with an impressive group of education organizations, voiced their support for the FCC’s new plan, praising the FCC for taking action prior to the 2014-15 school year. This course of action may not add up to a viable path forward though. In a program notoriously plagued by unmet funding requests, future promises paid for with unidentified funds rings a bit hollow. Commissioner Pai raised a valid concern that the proposal may lead to a funding cliff—which could result in an increase to program funding, but could just as likely result in additional unmet demand.

Most troubling, however, is that upgraded infrastructure has taken a backseat in talks, and at times has been diminished as a priority. Statements from the FCC have claimed that two-thirds of schools have access to fiber connections. These data do not appear to be publicly available, however, and it is unclear what the Commission defines as access. Are they combining both types of broadband access identified in the SETDA targets? Are districts with only one broadband provider in the area considered to have access?

In education—as with other public investments—infrastructure has proven to be one of the most difficult items to fund and maintain. While school buildings themselves are in desperate need of upgrading—recent reports indicate schools need over $271 billion just to bring facilities up to working order, let alone the $542 billion which would be needed to bring facilities up to education, safety, and health standards—calls for additional infrastructure investment often fall upon deaf ears. The task of funding broadband infrastructure upgrades in the future may face the same inertia.

What’s the bottom line? The E-rate program has been significantly updated for the first time since its inception in 1996. This is a good thing, and kudos to the FCC for taking a first step toward connecting 99 percent of students. But while the message may be more accessible, the goal isn’t connecting 99 percent of students to Wi-Fi. The goal is to connect 99 percent of students to high-speed broadband. To do so, we need speed targets to make that goal meaningful, we need upgraded infrastructure to make that goal possible, and we need more funding to make that goal achievable. There’s clearly still a lot of work to be done.


Lindsey Tepe is a senior policy analyst with the Education Policy program at New America. She is a member of the Learning Technologies project and PreK-12 team, where she focuses primarily on innovation and new technologies in public schools.