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Access to the Underserved: Keeping Up with the Times

by: Tom Wheeler, Chairman

June 20, 2014

Eighty years ago yesterday, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Communications Act into law, establishing the Federal Communications Commission. This new agency’s central mission was “to make available, so far as possible, to all the people of the United States a rapid, efficient, nationwide, and worldwide wire and radio communication service.”

Fast forward to today, and the Commission’s work remains focused on ensuring ALL Americans have access to world-class communications. In 2014, that increasingly means access to wired and wireless broadband. Consistent with that focus and our founding statute, the theme of the Commission’s July open meeting will be, “Access to the Underserved: Keeping Up with the Times.”

One of the Commission’s primary vehicles for ensuring citizens can get online is our E-Rate program. Over the past 18 years, E-Rate has helped ensure that one of society’s most basic responsibilities – educating our children – has evolved with new technology. At school, students and teachers benefit from connecting to the world of online information. In libraries, that connection expands all citizens’ ability to gather information, apply for jobs, and interact with government services.

The realities of the Internet, however, are different today than they were when E-Rate was introduced. The E-Rate program must be updated to meet today’s needs of schools and libraries.

New technologies like tablets and digital textbooks are providing great new opportunities for individualized learning and research. Effective use of this technology requires individual connections in schools and libraries to personal devices, and Wi-Fi is the most cost-effective way to provide this connectivity.

But today, three out of five schools in America lack sufficient Wi-Fi capability needed to provide students with 21st Century educational tools.  As currently structured, E-Rate in past years has only been able to support Wi-Fi in 5% of schools and 1% of libraries. Last year, no money was available for Wi-Fi.

Today, I am circulating an E-Rate Modernization Order for consideration at our July meeting that will close this Wi-Fi gap and provide more support for high-capacity wireless broadband for every school and library in America. By acting now, we can deliver digital learning benefits to 10 million students in the next funding year, compared to 4 million students under the status quo.

This proposal will also begin a multi-year transition of all E-Rate funding away from 20th Century technologies, like dial-up phone service and pagers, to 21st Century broadband to every classroom, while maintaining flexibility to meet the needs of individual schools and libraries. The new plan will make E-Rate dollars go farther by creating processes to drive down prices and increase transparency on how program dollars are spent. And it will simplify the application process for schools and libraries, making the program more efficient while reducing the potential for fraud and abuse.

While we need to upgrade the connectivity of our schools and libraries, too many parts of rural America lack broadband connectivity altogether.  This is in stark contrast to urban and suburban America, where many consumers have access to broadband at speeds in the hundreds of megabits per second.  We cannot leave rural America behind.  Today, I’m also circulating an item to take the next step on the rural broadband experiments adopted by the Commission in the January Tech Transitions Order – experiments to advance the deployment of voice and broadband-capable networks in rural, high-cost areas.

The simple fact of the matter is that the free market has failed to provide basic broadband connectivity to more than 15 million Americans. While we have already take steps to close the gap, there’s more work to be done.  The proposed Order will fund a limited number of trials of alternative approaches to solving this problem using the Connect America Fund (CAF).

The Order would establish a budget for the rural broadband experiments and an objective, clear-cut methodology for selecting winning applications to be in high-cost areas served by price cap carriers. 

We will use these rural broadband experiments to explore how to structure the CAF Phase II competitive bidding process in price cap areas and to gather valuable information about deploying next generation networks in high-cost areas.  We expect to move forward with CAF Phase II with all dispatch, and the lessons learned in these experiments will help us achieve our goal of delivering world-class voice and broadband networks to rural America.

A third area where the Commission is poised to act to enhance access for the underserved is with closed captioning. Americans living with intellectual and physical disabilities stand to benefit the most from broadband-enabled technologies, but disproportionately find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide.

Earlier this year, the Commission acted to enhance quality standards for closed captioning on TV that had been languishing at the FCC for over a decade.  As part of our implementation of the Communications and Video Accessibility Act, the Commission previously adopted closed captioning requirements for full-length video programming online. Today, I proposed to my colleagues that we go further and require captioning for video clips that end up on the Internet. Those who hear with their eyes should not be disadvantaged in their ability to access video information on the Internet.

Eighty years after the passage of the Communications Act, the principle of “communications for all” is more important than ever. Next month, the Commission can take the latest significant steps to put our founding principle into practice. 

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