On December 11th, the Federal Communications Commission voted to move forward with much needed and long awaited reforms to our nation’s E-rate program. With a 3-2 vote, Democratic Commissioners moved forward on a process that allocates $1 billion annually for expanded Wi-Fi connections in our schools and libraries. These services will be funded by moving away from traditional services like landline phones and pagers towards expanding Wi-Fi capacity, solving the Commission’s previous problem of how to improve services without increasing the current E-Rate cap. This reallocation of funds will help connect over 20 millions students in just two years.
Apart from these savings, and ensuring those dollars are spent in an appropriate and transparent way, the demand for improved infrastructure means the cap will also be raised. Established over 18 years ago, the E-Rate program is funded through the FCC’s general Universal Service Fund. Consumers and businesses contribute to this fund through a small fee placed on our phone bills. The original cap, set at $2.25 billion in 1997, has gone without adjustment for inflation until 2010. A majority of the fee increase is to make up for that inflation and customers will see that reflected by only .16 cents per month or $1.90 per year.
Many in the U.S. today have experienced an increase in speed thanks to expanded deployment and upgraded infrastructure, but data shows us that far too many schools and libraries have been left behind by this growth. In fact, 39% of school districts in affluent areas meet current speed goals compared to the less than 14% those in low-come areas. Ensuring all students gain the digital skills necessary to remain competitive in the global marketplace is a vital step for our nation.
For the 68% of all districts, and 73% of rural districts claiming to lack a single school with a high-speed connection, the vote to modernize is long overdue. Public Knowledge is supportive of the vote to modernize the E-rate program to bring 21st technologies to the nation’s most underserved institutions. These reforms are just one step of a larger process to achieve true digital equity for all that includes meaningful broadband deployment and universal access.
Photo Credit: Flick User UTC Library