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FCC looks to update school connectivity fund

The commission plans to focus on broadband capacity in its update of the E-Rate program

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission has voted to take the first step toward revamping its program that subsidizes Internet connections to schools and libraries, with the focus in the future on big bandwidth instead of simple connectivity.

The FCC on Friday voted to launch a notice of proposed rulemaking, or NPRM, focused on updating the 16-year-old E-Rate program. E-Rate, with a US$2.25 billion annual budget, has helped bring Internet service to nearly all U.S. schools, but the program is outdated, commissioners said.

About 80 percent of U.S. schools and libraries say they don't have enough bandwidth, Margaret Spellings, former U.S. secretary of education, told commissioners at Friday's FCC meeting. Schools need higher bandwidth to deliver modern technology-focused education, she said.

Commissioners agreed. "We are quickly moving from a world where what matters is connectivity to what matters is capacity," Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said.

Rosenworcel listed many other countries that have programs focused on bringing new technology into classrooms. "We are at a moment when the world is trying to out-educate us," she said.

The NPRM asks several questions on how to update the E-Rate program, but commissioners said the changes are likely to focus on increasing broadband capacity, increasing purchasing power for schools, and streamlining the application process.

A focus on increased capacity and new technologies is important, said Commissioner Ajit Pai. In recent years, about a quarter of E-Rate's budget has supported telephone service to schools and libraries, he said.

A streamlined application process is also needed, he added. In recent years, hundreds of millions of dollars of E-Rate money has gone unspent partly because of the complicated application process. A simplified process will mean more dollars going to help students, instead of paying advisors to help fill out forms, added Pai, who laid out his vision for a new E-Rate program in a speech this week.

The FCC's action earned praise from several U.S. lawmakers and technology trade groups.

"We must provide our schools and libraries with next-generation Internet connectivity so that they benefit from the rapid advances in digital education technology," Senator John "Jay" Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, said in a statement. "The global economy demands an increasingly educated workforce with higher skills and strong backgrounds in science, math and technology."

Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, held a hearing this week in which he called for an update to the E-Rate program.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is [email protected]


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