How to Improve Federal Funding for School Internet Services

As a new rulemaking process draws near, a survey of E-rate applicants reveals how to address the program's biggest flaws.

As the Federal Communications Commission prepares to revisit the E-rate, the program that provides billions of dollars in discounts on Internet connectivity to schools and libraries, an annual survey of E-rate applicants offers key insights that could help the agency modify the program to meet the needs of institutions more effectively.

The E-rate is fulfilling its mission, the survey suggests: 88 percent of applicants agree the program is "vital" to reaching their connectivity goals. More students and library users are online, and have faster connection speeds, as a result of E-rate funding.

Yet, the survey also reveals that demand for WiFi networks continues to grow — and only 16 percent of applicants say E-rate funding is sufficient to meet their broadband needs.

What's more, applicants are still vexed by how hard it is to apply, some 20 years after the program began. Despite the introduction of an online portal a few years ago that was supposed to streamline the process, 44 percent of respondents say they use a paid E-rate consultant to help prepare their application. The same percentage also described the E-rate Productivity Center (EPC) portal as "difficult" to use, down only slightly from 50 percent in 2016.

Many survey respondents voiced their frustration with the application process.

"I dropped out of the E-rate after 19 years," one respondent said. "The forms got too hard and too time-consuming to fill out." Another said: "The E-rate has improved but remains the most bureaucratic part of my job as IT coordinator."

The survey is from E-rate consulting firm Funds for Learning, who issued the results during the 2018 International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference in Chicago last month. More than 1,000 school and library personnel completed the survey, representing about 5 percent of all E-rate applicants nationwide.

This year's survey results come at a key time in the program's history. The E-rate underwent a dramatic makeover in 2014, when the FCC updated the program to shift the focus from telecommunications services to Internet connectivity. Support for voice-related services was phased out over the last four years, and the agency approved new rules designed to make funding for network infrastructure more widely available.

Many of these rules are set to expire in 2020, and the FCC soon will consider how to usher the program forward into the next decade.

Funds for Learning CEO John Harrington said he shares the results of his company's annual E-rate survey with FCC commissioners each year, and he hopes the survey will inform the agency's rulemaking process.

E-rate applicants had an opportunity to leave open-ended comments as they completed the survey. Here were some of their key suggestions for how to improve the program going forward:

Allow district-wide applications for category 2 services.

When the FCC overhauled the E-rate to focus on broadband infrastructure needs in 2014, the agency moved to a site-based funding model where each school gets a certain allowance for its wiring needs: $150 per student over a five-year period. Many applicants argued that this model isn't serving their needs, and districts should have the flexibility to spend E-rate funding as necessary across the entire district.

"I would like to see the E-rate go back to allowing school districts to file as a school district instead of (for) each individual school," one applicant said. "We have a couple of schools in our district that this change has really hurt. Because they are smaller schools, they get very little funding. Before the change, the E-rate made it possible for them to receive much better equipment. Now, they are getting hand-me-downs from the schools that get better funding."

Another applicant observed: "The current category 2 budget process takes entirely too much time to determine what we may be able to purchase. Having district-wide budgeting would be simpler to handle."

Move from a five-year to a three-year funding cycle for category 2 services.

Half of E-rate applicants said they'll need to upgrade their current network within the next three years. "As fast as technology is moving and improving, a five-year equipment cycle is too long," one applicant said.

Expedite the review process.

Several applicants agreed they have to wait too long before learning whether their request will be funded — and this hinders the technology planning process.

"If a school has an untarnished E-rate compliance record, it would be great if they would receive some sort of 'express processing' of their requests," one applicant suggested.

Improve E-rate technical support.

"Every reviewer, customer, service rep or vice president has a different take on the rules with no consistency," an applicant noted. Another said: "Our biggest issue is that we know more about the program rules than the Help Desk, making it nearly impossible to get a succinct answer to a complex question about eligibility or process. Quoting the website that didn't provide adequate info (in the first place) is not an acceptable answer."

Allow schools to share Internet service with families, provided this doesn't add to their E-rate requests.

Currently, the program prohibits schools from allowing families to tap into their networks, even to use idle bandwidth after school hours. But 82 percent of applicants say that insufficient Internet access in students' homes is a big issue — and 79 percent believe the E-rate should allow them to share their bandwidth with families.

"The largest gap in services is to the homes of our students," one applicant said. "Less than 50 percent of our student homes have any access to Internet services. This is a critical component that is missing."

About the Author

Dennis Pierce is a freelance writer with 17 years of experience covering education and technology. He can be reached at [email protected].