Policy & Funding

'E-Rate 2.0' Would Expand Broadband Access, Fund E-Book Pilot

E-Rate could be in for some major changes as it heads toward "version 2.0."

A bill introduced in the United States House of Representatives Tuesday, known as the "E-Rate 2.0 Act of 2010," would amend the school technology program by adding a five-year, $2.5 billion residential broadband voucher pilot program for students; a four-year, $200 million e-book pilot program; and refinements to program administration designed to ease the application process.

In addition, the bill would extend E-Rate to community colleges and to head start facilities and would instruct the Federal Communications Commission to develop a methodology to raise the E-Rate cap to adjust for inflation.

E-rate is a federal program that provides schools and libraries with discounts on telecommunications, Internet, and networking technologies and services.

The bill, H.R. 4619, was introduced by Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA)--lead House author of the original E-Rate legislation--and is currently being co-sponsored by Reps. Lois Capps (D-CA) and Doris Matsui (D-CA). A comparable bill has not yet been introduced in the Senate.

Expanded Broadband: Secondary, Post-Secondary, and Head Start
The legislation follows some of the recommendations that have been put forward for the national broadband plan that the FCC is expected to present to Congress in mid-March. This includes authorization for the FCC to launch a pilot program that would provide $500 million per year for five years to secondary schools to fund lower-income students' home broadband access through a voucher system.

Under the current version of the bill, vouchers would be provided to students who qualify for federally subsidized school lunches, who attend secondary schools that participate in the program, and who have access to a computer at home to take advantage of broadband connectivity. Vouchers would be distributed to students through their schools to pay monthly residential broadband fees.

It would also extend broadband support to community colleges and head start programs through a separate five-year pilot program, one that would make available $150 million per year to fund broadband equipment and services.

The bill's language does not make it clear how the annual $150 million amount would be broken down between community colleges and head start programs. But the bill does specify that funding will be awarded to applicants "who demonstrate need, maximum potential of broadband use consistent with their educational mission, and innovation with respect to use of broadband, [W]eb-based information and [Web-based] applications."

The bill also specifies that for the first five years after enactment, the E-Rate 2.0 pilot would serve as the sole source of federal funding for broadband equipment and services for community colleges and head start programs.

E-Books Pilot Project
The bill also initiates an e-book pilot project that would award up to $50 million per year for four years to secondary schools. The funds would be targeted toward the purchase of electronic book technologies by schools to be integrated into the curriculum. The bill provides for rulemaking to ensure that implementation is "on a technology-neutral basis."

As it stands in the current iteration of the bill, the e-book program would come up for analysis after three years and for recommendations for extending the rollout during the final year. The bill requires the final assessment of the program to include "metrics to gauge the impact on digital literacy and overall learning associated with the student use of electronic books project."

Application Refinements
Finally, the bill also includes provisions to ease some aspects of the E-Rate application process and program administration. Some specific proposed modifications include:

  • Decreasing funding request application frequency from once per year to to once every three years for Priority One services;
  • Web-based communications with applicants; and
  • Online applications and a general reduction in paper-based communications.

"This critical bill will help narrow the digital divide by increasing the range of the latest telecommunication services and devices accessible to low-income students, including residential broadband services and e-books incorporated into students' classroom lessons," Congressman Markey said in a statement released to the press Feb. 9. "The original E-Rate Bill that I authored has largely fulfilled its mission of linking up schools to the Web. The fact that only 14 percent of K-12 classrooms had Internet access at the time the 1996 bill was enacted, compared to more than 95 percent today, is a testament to that success. Now, with the expansion of the scope of technology, students need more than just Web access at school, and our E-Rate 2.0 bill is intended to reflect those expanded needs."

About the Author

David Nagel is the former editorial director of 1105 Media's Education Group and editor-in-chief of THE Journal, STEAM Universe, and Spaces4Learning. A 30-year publishing veteran, Nagel has led or contributed to dozens of technology, art, marketing, media, and business publications.

He can be reached at [email protected]. You can also connect with him on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/davidrnagel/ .