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Helping American Students Compete in a Digital World

by: Tom Wheeler, FCC Chairman

January 24, 2014 - 02:30 PM

Earlier this month I visited Edna Brewer Middle School in Oakland, one of the tens of thousands of schools across America connected to the Internet thanks largely to the E-Rate program.  E-Rate was established as a result of the bipartisan Telecommunications Act of 1996 to help schools and libraries obtain affordable Internet access. For schools like Edna Brewer, E-Rate has been a game-changer for students and the dedicated professionals who teach them. While at Edna Brewer, I had the pleasure of engaging in insightful conversations with students, teachers, administrators and the Information Technology (IT) officer for the school district.  Each offered important perspectives about the transformational educational benefits of IT for student learning where it’s available, and the challenges faced by students and teachers when that access is denied.    

My visit underscored the fact that the needs of our schools have dramatically changed since E-Rate began in 1996.  To be prepared for college and the 21st Century workforce, students today need to have access to state-of-the-art, interactive, educational content; and tools for student collaboration, student-teacher communication, and lesson planning.  None of this will be possible if our students aren’t connected to networks capable of delivering that content and offering those tools.  

On my first day on the job I made clear that a top priority of the Commission must be to make networks work for everyone.  It isn’t enough to simply emphasize the need for more broadband; the focus has to be on what high-speed Internet connections enable, whether in fully connected classrooms or after school in a library.  We must lead the world in this effort. I am firmly committed to meeting the goal of connecting 99 percent of America’s students to high-speed broadband within five years.

The fact of the matter is that we have moved from the era of “computers in the classroom” where a few PCs sat along the wall for occasional use to “computers on the desks” where students interact on an ongoing basis to not only learn their lessons, but also to acquire the computer literacy skills necessary for 21st Century careers.

My fellow Commissioners and I have the responsibility of ensuring the E-Rate program meets today’s needs. The E-Rate of yesterday – which has focused on providing schools and libraries with basic connectivity – needs to be updated to support today’s Gigabit fiber and Wi-Fi connectivity. Modernizing E-Rate is critical for our students and teachers.

Immediately upon joining the FCC in November, we began a process to carefully and thoroughly examine this issue with the goal of a 21st Century E-Rate program.   The FCC staff has conducted a top to bottom review of the program. We are finalizing a path forward that will improve the program’s efficiency, functionality, and our oversight so that E-Rate can better meet the modern connectivity needs of schools and libraries while remaining on sound financial footing for many years to come.  

Commissioner Clyburn, who laid important groundwork in this effort as Chairwoman, has eloquently stated, “broadband has the potential to be the great equalizer for our children.” 

Commissioner Rosenworcel correctly describes the challenge, that “without adequate capacity our students are going to fall short.  They will be unable to realize the full potential of digital learning.” She has highlighted examples from Miami to north of the Arctic Circle where online learning tools create personalized lesson plans for both urban and rural students.

I share the aspiration of Commissioner Pai, who said, “When it comes to our children’s education, we should not be afraid of the hard choices.  We should not tinker around the edges.  We should shoot for the moon. And we should aim to win.”

Working with my fellow Commissioners, the FCC will deliver an E-Rate program for the 21st Century.  Together, we will meet the recent calls to action laid down by the President, Senators Rockefeller and Markey – the Founding Fathers of E-Rate – the bipartisan LEAD Commission, and many others who are dedicated to our students’ future.  

We will make the necessary structural and administrative improvements to focus support on broadband services while making the program more efficient and easier to navigate for applicants.  These improvements must also include strong oversight and enforcement to ensure every dollar that is intended to reach schools and libraries, gets there and gets the job done.  

As part of our top to bottom review of E-Rate, the opportunity has opened to use existing funds to immediately begin to expand E-Rate funding targeted to high-speed connectivity to students in schools and libraries. These additionally available funds will begin to be put to work this year for schools and libraries. This will be done without affecting the program’s existing structures and the 2014 program application process that is now underway.

We will soon bring to the Commission a detailed plan to achieve these objectives.  As we move forward, there will be many voices and perspectives.  They will all be heard and respected.  I look forward to building on the ongoing activities of my colleagues and working with all parties interested in modernizing E-Rate to build on the success of the past, and to make sure American students get the 21st Century education they deserve.

Updated: January 27, 2014 - 08:03 AM
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