Last month the Commission took a major step forward in modernizing E-rate by tackling the school and library Wi-Fi gap, maximizing cost-effective purchasing, and phasing down support for non-broadband services. In addition, the item includes a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that seeks comment on, among other things, the long-term funding needs of the program in light of the overall broadband goals and the annual $1 billion target for Wi-Fi adopted in the E-rate Modernization Order

Chairman Wheeler has made clear that data will drive answers to questions about program funding, based on an understanding of current school and library connectivity and the projected costs necessary for all schools and libraries to meet the goals adopted in the E-rate Modernization Order. 

In support of this objective, the FCC’s Wireline Competition Bureau and Office of Strategic Planning and Policy today released a staff report summarizing what we have learned to date as the result of an extraordinary effort to collect and analyze data, both about the current state of communications technology in America’s libraries and schools as well as the way the E-Rate program provides support.  We also published two maps providing a visualization of current fiber availability for schools and libraries across the country.  

The report is a highly illuminating read, both for longtime experts in the E-rate program as well as those more broadly interested in the state of education technology in America today.  A few insights from the report really stand out:

  1. The Commission’s E-rate Modernization Order has the potential to dramatically expand access to funding for Wi-Fi upgrades.  Of note, close to half of applicants in Funding Year 2012 spent less than $150 per-student on internal connections, the budget adopted by the Commission in the E-Rate Modernization Order, but some applicants spent far more, ensuring that the vast majority of schools and libraries would not receive such support. With the adoption of reasonable budgets, $1 billion in annual support for Wi-Fi should be sufficient to ensure Wi-Fi connectivity in every school and library.
  2. Phasing down support for non-broadband services will, over the next five Funding Years, result in a total of over $3.5 billion which will be freed up and reallocated to higher priority broadband connections to and within schools and libraries.
  3. The report confirms that while there is work to be done in connecting more schools to fiber, the current state is somewhat better than expected.  With a large set of data indicating that approximately two-thirds of schools have access to fiber infrastructure,  the most important barrier to high-speed connectivity to the school premises appears to be service pricing, rather than access to infrastructure.
  4. At the same time, many rural schools and the vast majority of libraries lack physical infrastructure necessary to meet the broadband goals adopted in the E-rate Modernization Order.  This rural broadband gap must be addressed.
  5. One of the more striking takeaways from the report is how vividly it illustrates the variability in prices being paid for similar services by similarly situated schools and libraries seeking E-rate support.

The intent of the report is to help stakeholders and the public navigate the large and data-intensive record in the E-rate Modernization proceeding, particularly as parties respond to the sections of the E-rate Modernization Further Notice regarding long-term funding needs.  

We hope the report is a useful tool for stakeholders as you consider additional steps that should be taken in the modernization process.  As always, we welcome your feedback and we encourage all parties to submit additional data and analysis into the record.  Technology and the needs of schools and libraries continue to evolve quickly, and staff will continue to develop the record in this proceeding to facilitate a fact-based, data-driven modernization of the program.