WASHINGTON, September 29, 2014 – Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler said that the agency was committed to modernizing the E-rate program. He made the statement in remarks at the 2014 Educational Technology Summit here in Washington. Schools and libraries participating in the FCC’s E-rate program must pay the best rates available for high-speed connectivity.
He said the FCC’s recent emphasis on using Wi-Fi to share high-speed broadband within schools and libraries helps meet the evolving needs of students and teachers. Citing FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, Wheeler said the issue of internet access has moved from one of “connectivity” to one of “capacity.” Wheeler also said that the transition to 21st Century technologies is not over. The next step, in addition to closing the Wi-Fi gap, is closing the rural fiber gap.
The focus on increased of internet speeds within institutions doesn’t matter if the libraries and schools lack the necessary broadband infrastructure to the buildings. This is especially a problem in rural America, where an estimated 75 percent of public schools are unable to achieve the connectivity goals set out by the FCC.
“We must tackle the rural fiber gap if we are to achieve our connectivity targets for all schools and libraries,” Wheeler noted in a prepared statement. ”But it is also a matter of having sufficient funding and ensuring that schools can afford the ongoing costs of accessing high-capacity broadband networks.”
Wheeler said the gap in connectivity costs was shocking. In Mississippi, 1 Gigabit per second (Gbps) of connectivity costs $750 per month. The same connectivity costs more than $5,000 in neighboring Louisiana.
Pricing transparency and pooling purchasing power are two ways to drive down costs, said Wheeler. If applicants for E-rate funds in different states and districts knew what schools in neighboring districts and states were paying, these schools and libraries would be able to negotiate low price contracts. Consortia could also help in getting a better deal from telecommunications providers.
Wheeler called on local and state governments for support and to continue to recognize the critical importance of connecting students in both urban and rural areas, for “it will take more than the efforts of the FCC alone to close the rural fiber gap.”