Policy & Advocacy | Viewpoint

Shifting Federal Priorities Mean More Funding for Ed Tech

Spurred on by the President's ConnectED initiative, the FCC is moving to prioritize WiFi over outdated technology, and there's still time for districts to speak up about what they need.

"Technology has changed; the needs of schools have changed; the E-rate program must reflect this change." So said Tom Wheeler, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), in a talk to a group assembled by the Council of Chief State School Officers in mid-March. His talk was but the latest in a flurry of activity around the E-rate in particular and the federal role in educational technology in general.

The positive flurry began in June 2013. In a speech at Mooresville Middle School (NC), President Obama announced his ConnectED initiative and directed the FCC "to begin a process that will connect 99 percent of America's students to high-speed broadband Internet within five years."

In February 2014, the President announced more than $750 million in private-sector commitments to deliver "cutting-edge technologies to classrooms, including devices, free software, teacher professional development and home wireless connectivity." Seven companies answered the President's call for donations and others followed in subsequent days. Thus far, no details are yet available about how those goods and services might be distributed, but the commitment from those companies remains. Obama also announced that the FCC had found an additional $2 billion in the E-rate program over the next two years. Finally, the President released his budget in March, including a new $200 million request for an educational technology program, ConnectEDucators, which "would provide funding to help educators leverage technology and data to provide high-quality college- and career-ready instruction that meets the needs of all students."

Given the ongoing dysfunction in Congress, it is impossible to know whether the President's budget request will go very far, but if we turn our eyes to the E-rate , there is no doubt that action is imminent. Just three months after the President announced the ConnectED initiative in Mooresville, the FCC released a Notice of Proposed Rule-Making (NPRM) regarding the E-rate . Over the next few months, the FCC received more than 1,500 comments in response to the NPRM. On March 6, the Wireline Competition Bureau of the FCC released a Public Notice seeking comment on a much narrower set of issues regarding the E-rate . In addition, there have been a number of speeches by FCC commissioners, the most noteworthy being FCC Chairman Wheeler's speech and Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel's speech at SXSWedu.

While the Public Notice is a very different document than the two speeches and has a very different purpose, it does address three overriding concerns: 1) How to best focus E-rate funds on high capacity broadband, especially within the school; 2) whether and how to phase out legacy programs such as voice; and 3) whether and how to create programs to maximize cost-effective purchasing.

Looking at the Public Notice and Commissioner Rosenworcel's and Wheeler's talks, we can see some pretty solid hints about what will happen with the E-rate over time and what you might begin considering in your districts.

The Three S's of E-Rate
Commissioner Rosenworcel noted that E-rate reform should provide three S's: speed, simplify and spending smart. Reflecting the Public Notice, she cited speed targets for high-speed broadband that SETDA established in our paper "The Broadband Imperative": 100 Mbps per 1,000 students in the near term and 1 Gbps per 1,000 students by the end of the decade. (SETDA recommended the 1 Gbps by 2017.)

Rosenworcel also said she wants to simplify the E-rate program, first by reducing the bureaucracy associated with it. To that end, she would like to see multiyear applications possible, along with incentives for consortia in the application process. Finally, the entire process, including the review process, should be more transparent.

As for "spending smart," there is much interesting and good news. She noted that better accounting practices that the FCC has already identified will net some additional money over the next two years. This is the $2 billion that President Obama cited in his February 2014 speech. But part of Rosenworcel's spending smart is also phasing out support for what she called "the estimated $600 million this program now spends annually on outdated services like paging." This will free up funds to focus more on high-speed connectivity.

Commissioner Rosenworcel acknowledged the need for more funding. The program was originally sized at $2.25 billion in 1998. The demand for the program over the last two years has been double that. Rosenworcel and other commissioners have stated that they think streamlining the process, phasing out old legacy services and finding alternative ways within the system to be more efficient can save a good deal of money that can be directed toward more connectivity both to the district door and within the school to the desktop. Even with that efficiency and modification, Rosenworcel noted that it is clear that districts need more money. She suggests as a starting point to restore the purchasing power of the program to what it was in 1998 by bringing back what inflation has taken away — approximately $1 billion annually. From there, we can identify what else is needed to meet the goal of 99 percent connectivity in five years.

Getting WiFi to the Desktop
Chairman Wheeler's speech struck similar notes, but in some cases with more detail, and especially more emphasis on phasing out legacy systems. Like Commissioner Rosenworcel, Wheeler bemoaned how funds currently were being spent. While he mentioned the $600 million outlay on outdated services, he went farther. In this past funding year, less than half of the $2.4 billion was spent on providing 100 Mbps capacity and none on WiFi. In addition to pagers, he listed legacy PBX systems, $175 million spent on mobile phones and $260 million on services like e-mail, texting and Web hosting. While he has no doubt that these are important to some schools and libraries, "are they more important than paying for high-speed connectivity to the facility and WiFi access throughout?"

Wheeler acknowledges that the transition may be tough for some districts, and thus they need to "evolve" away from voice and these other services, but he emphasized that connectivity to the desktop is a higher priority. Once the FCC fixes efficiency issues and changes the focus to high-speed connectivity, then and only then will they look at putting additional money into the system. He acknowledged that the program needs to be sufficiently funded, but it must be fiscally responsible based on up-to-date information.

The takeaway is clear: A modernized E-rate will be focused on high-speed connectivity to the school and the desktop, be more efficient and possess a simpler application process, be more transparent in its application and review process, and be better funded. The proverbial devil is in the details of the hundreds of questions in last summer's NPRM and 23 pages of March's Public Notice.

So what can you do? The comment period for the Public Notice ended April 7 and the Reply Comments were due no later than April 21, but staffers at the FCC as well as Commissioner Rosenworcel have said that they encourage comments and suggestions even after that. They need to hear what technology you have and what you need to support learning in a digital age. And they need to hear why you need those things. For example, it is helpful to say you need six times the capacity that you currently have because you are switching to all digital content for learning, much of it is video, and students are creating video of their own that they are sharing with a partner school in India.

These are the two key points: Share your need, and get ready for some changes to the E-rate program.