Policy & Funding

Survey Exposes Need for Off-Campus E-rate Funding

It's time for E-rate funding to support off-campus connectivity too. That's a big theme in the latest survey by Funds For Learning, an E-rate consultancy. According to a June 2020 survey of 2,138 schools and districts that applied for E-rate, 90 percent of respondents reported that insufficient internet access was a significant issue in their communities. Ninety-three percent reported that they would share their discounted internet access for off-campus purposes if that were allowed by the Federal Communications Commission. And 82.5 percent agreed or "strongly" agreed that their schools and libraries would use the E-rate program for off-campus connections.

The E-rate program supports most schools and libraries in the United States, providing billions of dollars annually to bolster the costs for internet access, telecommunications and computer networking projects. The current program encompasses some 21,000 applicants and 4,100 vendors. The FCC runs the program through the Universal Service Administrative Co. E-rate funding is generated through fees collected from telecommunications customers.

Survey Exposes Need for Off-Campus E-rate Funding

Where E-rate schools and libraries would like to see additional support.Source: "2020 E-rate Trends Report," from Funds For Learning

One timely finding in the report was that most schools (59 percent) didn't or couldn't use any of the emergency relief funding they may have received from the federal government or their state governors earlier this year to expand connectivity off campus.

Also, the share of people who would like to see cybersecurity added as a qualifying E-rate service rose from 96 percent last year to 98 percent this year. The desire to see school bus WiFi added increased from 66 percent to 73 percent. And two-thirds would provision dual internet connections for more reliable connectivity if that were allowed by the FCC.

According to the company, E-rate continues to be a "vital program" in helping communities reach connectivity goals. Nine in 10 respondents agreed or strongly agreed that schools and libraries connected more students at faster speeds due to the E-rate program. "It would be devastating to our school without this program," one rural district respondent said. "Without the E-rate program we would not be able to provide internet access to our school," reported another.

For fiscal year 2019, the biggest Category 1 spending went to lit fiber, which drew $1.7 billion in expenditure. That was three times the amount spent for all other product types combined. For Category 2 spending, investments in switches and routers drew $726 million, followed by access points ($322 million) and cabling ($163 million).

Most respondents (59 percent) said they'd expect to upgrade their Wi-Fi network in the next one to three years. Twenty percent said it needed to happen within the next year.

"As the past few months have so poignantly demonstrated, an online connection should never be taken for granted. Internet access plays a central role in our society, and schools and libraries are at the forefront of making sure our communities are included online," said John Harrington, Funds For Learning CEO, in a statement. "The annual E-rate survey amplifies our combined voices to affect positive change for the program; we'll continue calling upon Congress to leverage the E-rate program for equitable off-campus internet connections."

The full report is openly available on the Funds For Learning website.

About the Author

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