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Funds For Learning Seeks Rural Broadband Funds for E-Rate Expansion

A company that provides E-Rate compliance services is making a public plea to the Federal Communications Commission to divert funds set aside for the expanding rural broadband in order to expand deployment in schools and libraries, no matter where they're located. Funds For Learning, which manages E-Rate programs for its clients, has posted a petition online to generate support for its idea. The organization said it had 1,000 signatories as of Dec. 15, supporting an open letter to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski encouraging him to increase funding for E-Rate.

The E-Rate program subsidizes Internet access and telecommunications for schools and libraries. By applying for E-Rate funds, schools can receive discounts on specific aspects of their data communications infrastructure, based on the number of children they have in free and reduced lunch programs. Currently, up to $2.25 billion is available every year to provide eligible schools and libraries with discounts for authorized services.

"The Internet is vital for students and teachers, and there is a need to increase Internet access in schools. Yet, at the same time, school budgets are getting tighter and tighter," said John Harrington, CEO of Funds For Learning. "E-Rate requests currently outpace available funding nearly two to one. However, we believe that there is a way to increase E-Rate support for students without raising taxes."

The proposal is to deploy some of the funds from the newly created Connect America initiative. Publicly announced in mid-November 2011, this FCC program uses money collected through the telecommunications companies' Universal Service Fund and the Intercarrier Compensation systems to power a fast Internet build-out to rural areas that currently lack access to broadband infrastructure.

The Connect America budget will be set at "no more than $4.5 billion," the FCC said in a statement. That's expected to help connect 7 million people to high-speed Internet and voice over the next six years. That's also the money that Funds For Learning would like to tap to address unmet needs among those organizations applying for E-Rate funds.

"The E-Rate discount program helps, but it is straining under demand," said Cathy Cruzan, president of Funds For Learning. "The amount of available funding has remained virtually static since the beginning of the program. Because of this, [E-Rate stakeholders'] buying power has greatly decreased since 1998."

Cruzan's organization said that demand for E-Rate has more than doubled since the program began in 1998.

Calling the solution "simple," the open letter drafted by Funds for Learning asks the FCC to:

  • Allocate more money from Connect America to E-Rate, "enough to connect at broadband speeds all of America's schools and libraries--urban and rural, rich and poor, and every one of them in between--to the Internet";
  • Continue boosting E-Rate funds to "enable schools and libraries to update and maintain those networks"; and
  • Ensure that sufficient funding is available to support the National Broadband Plan's digital literacy initiative, along with any other part of that plan that requires E-Rate funding to operate and succeed.

Said Cruzan, "We believe that the support of this petition will let the FCC know that there is strong backing from school administrators, teachers, parents, students, and other E-Rate stakeholders to continue the success of the E-Rate program and follow in the commission's goal of making broadband available to all."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.