WASHINGTON, July 15, 2014 - In a phone conference on July 1, in the lead-up to last week’s open meeting of the Federal Communications Commission, agency officials discussed Chairman Tom Wheeler's proposal to modify the E-rate program. The agency seeks to spend more funds on Wi-Fi gap connectivity within schools around the country and maximize the impact of existing funds by providing many schools with greater high speed connectivity.
The conference was joined by FCC Managing Director Jon Wilkins, former West Virginia Governor Bob Wise, Marijke Visser of the American Library Association, and Evan Marwell, CEO and founder of Education Superhighway, the provider of much of the FCC's data on school connectivity.
Wheeler wants to reallocate $2 billion in current E-rate funds, including spending on non-broadband services like pagers, email and voice service, toward high speed Wi-Fi. The report said that by 2019, this is expected to help 44 million additional students around the country, whether that be in urban, suburban or rural areas.
Some education advocacy groups, however, have already criticized Wheeler's proposal, Marwell said. Groups like the National Education Association claim that simply reallocating money isn't a sustainable model without injecting additional funds.
Last year, only 4 to 11 percent of over 100,000 schools participating in the E-rate program received funding for internal connections. Libraries looked even worse, with only one percent of 17, 000 eligible libraries nationwide receiving any Wi-Fi support at all.
Given this lackluster support, Wilkins said he is confident that the majority of educators and local legislators around the country will see a tremendous need for Wheeler's modernized E-rate program.
"We have partnerships with over 30 departments of education around the country," Marwell said, "and the feedback we get from them...and when we talk to superintendents and CTOs of school districts around the country... is this is a major step forward in helping them solve their broadband problems."
Access to high speed Internet isn't just a higher tier luxury anymore, Wise said. It's an essential everyday need, especially now that "learning isn't any longer confined to the seven or eight hour school day." It's a 24/7 process instead, he said.
"The early E-rate dealt with teachers and computers and hundreds of students with textbooks. Today, those hundreds of students are replacing their textbooks with tablets, and as the issue has always been critically important about getting broadband connectivity [to] the last mile, now, equally important is [getting] 50 feet inside that school." In other words, the goal is for every student with an Internet-based mobile device to have "access to the world."
Visser went even further. She said all schools and libraries need "affordable, scalable broadband that supports up to a Gigabit, and actually, even beyond in order to fully participate in the 21st century education for students." This may necessitate investments of up to $150 per student, Wilkins said, to ensure sufficient coverage for schools.
Libraries in particular need the investment because they support employment and entrepreneurship opportunities, Visser said. While virtually all libraries offer free, public internet access, service needs to be more "robust," she added.
In February, Wheeler said that "18 years ago, the idea of a student-accessible computer in the school building was a revolutionary concept. Thanks to E-Rate that rarity became commonplace and computers moved into classrooms. Now with the next generation of E-Rate, we are harnessing innovation to put that power directly in front of the student.”