E-Rate | Q&A

EducationSuperHighway CEO Discusses the Impact of the FCC Vote on Broadband Funding

Following the recent FCC vote on reforms to the E-rate broadband subsidy program, THE Journal spoke with Evan Marwell, CEO and Founder of nonprofit advocacy group EducationSuperHighway (ESH), to discuss the impact of the vote on educational technology.

Evan MarwellTHE Journal: Following the vote regarding E-rate reforms, what should educators expect to change for this fall, if anything?

Marwell: Not much is going to change in terms of this order. The thing about E-rate is that it’s pretty much a 9-month cycle from when schools start applying and when they start receiving benefits. Most upgrades happen over the summer. Really we are talking about the 2015 cycle. Most of the money that comes out as a result of this is going to come out for upgrades done in the summer of 2015.

The E-rate program in general will of course be a factor for this fall, with many schools taking advantage of the program for upgrading their broadband, but there was no funding for WiFi this year – this is why this latest FCC decision is so important.

THE Journal: One of the main points of contention during the weeks leading up to this vote was the fear that rural schools would lose out under Chairman Wheeler’s proposed modernization reforms. Can you tell us about what the impact of the vote is going to be on these rural schools?

Marwell: There were a lot of misconceptions about what these reforms would mean for rural schools, so I would like to make a few things clear: External connections and wide-area networks are still really important — these are called “priority 1” connections. One of the misconceptions out there is that rural schools were benefiting less than urban schools from E-rate as it related to broadband activity.

The fact is that every school is this country that applied for benefits got them – that is to say, 100% of the subsidy to which they were entitled got broadband to their door. The “safety valve” [provision added to the reforms just before the vote] guarantees that that continues to be the case. It states that WiFi spending does not either way affect that every school gets what they asked for. That will continue to be the case. Every school, urban or rural, will benefit.

When it comes to WiFi, that’s where the difference is. The difference was that there wasn’t a lot of money available for internal connections. Only the poorest districts were getting funding for WiFi networks. Urban schools, which are typically poorer, were getting more benefit than rural schools. What the FCC approved [in this vote] will vastly change that. If they can hit the $1 billion target, every school in the country will have the chance to upgrade their WiFi network.

Part of the reason all the money was going to urban schools was because there was no cap. Urban schools could ask for a billion dollars and, as long as they could justify it, they could get it. That means a lot less funds for everyone else. Today, every school is limited to $150 per student times their discount rate. This means schools are working within a budget.

Now, getting connectivity out to rural schools is still a big problem. There are a few major things we still need to figure out:

  1. How do we get fiber to every school in this country that doesn’t have it today? That’s somewhere between 20% and 40% of schools.
  2. How do we make sure that broadband is affordable for every school, particularly in smaller rural towns where there is less competition? We need to create more competition, creating more choices for how schools fund broadband.
  3. Funding. Many groups have pointed out that we just don’t have enough money in the program to fund everything that needs to happen.

THE Journal: What comes next in the process of trying to raise the cap?

Marwell: The bill will come out and the FCC will ask for comments and there will be all kinds of people putting in comments, and people like us will have to do real analysis, figuring out what it is we are trying to accomplish, what is the cost of broadband and building fiber, and solving for the equation. The FCC will have to come back and then make its next proposal for what to do.

What ESH would like to see is the creation of an infrastructure fund that can subsidize the build-out of fiber optics for schools that don’t have it. Why? Because today the commercial vendors have pretty much built fiber everywhere it is commercially viable for them to have it. To put it in new areas means they need to make it commercially viable to build there. We would also like to see the FCC take steps to increase competition, to equalize dark and lit fiber. And lastly, if schools cannot get a fiber network bid, they should be allowed to build their own using the E-rate fund.

THE Journal: What can educators do to help push the FCC to raise the cap?

Marwell: A couple things:

  1. Focus on their classrooms and deploying digital tools, integrating tech into their pedagogy. The more proof points we have about how digital learning works, the easier it is to get bipartisan support for raising the cap.
  2. Ultimately we need superintendents to tell their representatives in congress that this matters and this is important. What we find is a lot of rhetoric about not wanting to spend more money, and a lot of it came from this notion of, "Hey, we don’t want to spend more money until we can deem every dollar is being well spent." We know it will be spent a lot more effectively after this FCC vote. That excuse is gone. We need superintendents to tell their representatives that we need to fully fund this now. 

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