SHARING AMERICA'S TECH NEWS FROM THE VALLEY TO THE ALLEY
WASHINGTON, by Edward Wyatt, courtesy NYTimes — The Federal Communications Commission voted on Friday to overhaul and possibly expand its E-Rate program, a $2.3 billion effort to provide schools and libraries with up-to-date telecommunications service and equipment, including high-speed Internet connections.
A proposal approved by the commission, which will be made available for public comment before a final version is completed, calls for funds to be moved away from outdated uses like paying for paging service and long-distance phone calls and into areas that will accelerate digital literacy, like Wi-Fi connections within a school or library.
The proposal also calls for measures that would drive down the cost of services, like adoption of purchasing consortiums, and the streamlining of administrative requirements — among them, shifting much of the required paperwork for applicants to electronic filings. “One of the biggest obstacles to seizing the opportunities of digital learning in America is inadequate bandwidth at our schools and libraries,” Mignon L. Clyburn, the F.C.C. chairwoman, said before voting. “Simply put, they need faster high-capacity connections and they need them now.”
Just last month in a visit to a North Carolina middle school, President Obama set a goal of connecting 99 percent of school students to the Internet through high-speed broadband and high-speed wireless within five years.
“To get there, we have to build connected classrooms that support modern teaching — investments we know our international competitors are already making,” Mr. Obama said on Friday.
The E-Rate fund has financed Internet connections to more than 95 percent of American public school classrooms, while only 14 percent were connected when E-Rate was established in 1997.
In 2010, however, an F.C.C. study found that more than half of the schools and libraries reported that their Internet connections were too slow to meet their needs. For the coming school year, libraries and schools requested more than $4.9 billion to pay for connections and equipment, more than twice the size of the fund.
“We fail our students if we expect digital-age learning to take place at near dial-up speeds,” said Jessica Rosenworcel, an F.C.C. commissioner. “Contrast this with efforts under way in some of our world neighbors. They are pouring resources into these subjects, into schools and connectivity.”
The E-Rate program has been faulted for inadequately allocating money in the fund, which is provided through a tax on consumers’ phone bills, a monthly charge between 50 cents and $1.
Commissioner Ajit Pai, the lone Republican on the five-member commission (where two seats are vacant), criticized allocations of the fund, saying an average of only $1.8 billion had been spent in each of the last 10 years, leaving more than $5 billion unused in the E-Rate account.
Mr. Pai also complained that the program placed greater emphasis on the wrong services.
“E-Rate today prioritizes long-distance telephone calls and getting phone service to a school’s bus garage over wiring up a classroom,” Mr. Pai said in a speech this week at the American Enterprise Institute. “How can it be that E-Rate in the last few years committed about $600 million, more than one-quarter of its annual budget, to support voice telephone services while at the same time denying eight out of 10 applicants’ funding for connecting classrooms?”
At a Senate Commerce Committee hearing this week, both Republicans and Democrats spoke favorably of the fund, although some quoted Mr. Pai’s observations in a warning of reckless spending.
Thank you, TiA