May 11, 2015 - 3:10 pm
By Tom Wheeler | FCC Chairman

E-rate is the nation's largest education technology program, and it has helped to ensure that almost every school and library in America has basic Internet connectivity. In the 18 years since E-rate was established, technology has evolved, the needs of students and teachers have changed, and basic connectivity has become insufficient. That's why, last year, the FCC took steps to reboot and modernize how we connect our schools, libraries – and most importantly, our students – to 21st century educational opportunity.

We improved the program's cost-effectiveness, set specific, ambitious goals for the broadband capacity delivered to schools and libraries – a short term target of 100 Mbps per 1000 students, and a longer term target of 1 Gbps per 1,000 students   – and re-purposed funding for Wi-Fi and robust broadband connections capable of supporting cutting-edge, one-to-one digital learning.

These reforms will only have their intended impact if schools and libraries step up to take advantage of new opportunities. Early indications are that they are up to the challenge.  Applications are in for E-rate funding for the coming school year, and schools and libraries have responded to the FCC's E-rate reforms by seeking a total of $3.9 billion in support, including more than $1.6 billion for internal Wi-Fi networks.

These requests reflect long pent-up demand.  It is the first time in three years that E-rate has had any funds available for Wi-Fi at all. In the past, many schools and libraries didn't bother to apply for Wi-Fi funding because they had no hope of getting funds. That is no longer a problem. As projected last year, we will be able to fully fund eligible Wi-Fi applications thanks entirely to fiscal and programmatic reforms that freed up more than $1.5 billion for Wi-Fi. Not an additional dime in ratepayer fees will be needed. Then, we made our allocations more equitable so all schools and libraries would get a shot. Finally, we prioritized broadband by phasing out support for phones, and outright eliminating support for pagers and other non-broadband services that don't directly benefit students and library patrons.

The bottom line is that E-rate is devoting its resources to where schools and libraries need the most help: getting access to robust broadband. This will open up new educational opportunities for students across the country.

For example, in Kindred, North Dakota, the old E-rate provided no help in getting schools onto the fast lanes of the information superhighway. With last year's reforms, the Kindred School District has been able to apply for funding to expand broadband Wi-Fi access throughout its system.

And the School District of Philadelphia has applied for E-rate funding to boost Wi-Fi capacity that can address exponentially increasing demands of mobile learning and bring-your- own -device programs that are currently in place at multiple schools, with plans to implement at many others.  All told, students and teachers at approximately 165 schools will enjoy improved Wi-Fi networks, which, operating in conjunction with the District's E-rate-supported Wide Area Network, will provide teachers and students with seamless high-speed access to the Internet.

Through their ambitious requests, schools and libraries have told us E-rate reform was needed and appreciated. Work is already underway preparing for next year's introduction of other changes we made to the E-rate program to support the expansion of high-speed fiber connections.  But for now, we're thrilled that modernization is working as projected, and grateful that we can play our part in educating the next generation of Americans and informing life-long learners by supporting robust broadband in schools and libraries.