FCC ENABLES HIGH-SPEED, AFFORDABLE BROADBAND FOR SCHOOLS AND LIBRARIES
Washington, D.C. -- The Federal Communications Commission today upgraded and modernized the E-rate program to bring fast, affordable Internet access to schools and libraries across the country. These changes will help ensure that America's students can learn and develop the high-tech skills necessary to compete in the 21st Century economy.
The National Broadband Plan laid out a series of recommendations to promote broadband-enabled, cutting-edge learning inside and outside the classroom. One of the key recommendations is modernizing the FCC's E-rate program, established by Congress to bring connectivity to all schools and libraries across America. The program has achieved remarkable success -- 97 percent of American schools and nearly all public libraries now have basic Internet access.
But the Plan found that basic broadband connectivity is too slow to keep up with the innovative high-tech tools that are now essential for a world-class education. According to a recent FCC survey, 78 percent of E-rate recipients say they need faster connections to meet the speed and capacity demands of their students, teachers, and library patrons.
The FCC's E-rate Order makes it easier for schools and libraries to get the highest speeds for the lowest prices by increasing their options for broadband providers and streamlining the application process. The Order is another advance in the Commission's ongoing transformation of the Universal Service Fund, of which the E-rate program is part, to deploy broadband throughout America.
The FCC's upgrades to E-rate include:
- Super-Fast Fiber: The FCC's E-rate Order will help bring affordable, super-fast fiber connections to America's schools and libraries. It allows participants to use E-rate funds to connect to the Internet in the most cost-effective way possible, including via unused fiber optic lines already in place across the country and through existing state, regional and local networks. With these fiber networks, schools and libraries can provide students and communities with cutting-edge connectivity, while at the same time saving millions of dollars by bypassing more expensive options.
- School Spots: The FCC is also opening the door to "School Spots" -- where schools have the option to provide Internet access to the local community after students go home. With affordable fiber, these School Spots are a major step toward the National Broadband Plan's goal of connecting an anchor institution in every community to affordable 1 gigabit per second broadband. School Spots will help ensure that people who otherwise lack access can use broadband.
- Learning On-the-Go: The FCC is launching a pilot program that supports off-campus wireless Internet connectivity for mobile learning devices. Education doesn't stop at the schoolyard gate or the library door. Digital textbooks and other innovative wireless devices allow students to learn in a real-world context, inside the classroom and beyond. Because of their low cost and accessibility, these mobile devices can also help advance digital equality, particularly for children from economically disadvantaged communities.
- 21st Century E-rate Program: The Order brings E-rate into the 21st Century by making the program more effective and efficient. These improvements include:
o Indexing the cap on E-rate funding to inflation in a fiscally responsible manner, so that the program can more fully meet the needs of students and communities. Since 1997 when the E-rate program started, inflation has raised costs 30 percent but the program has remained capped, significantly decreasing its effective purchasing power. Earlier this month, the Commission reserved hundreds of millions of dollars annually from another program of the Universal Service Fund to cover the incremental E-rate support (less than $25 million next year) it is providing, without growing the overall size of the Universal Service Fund.
o Supporting connections to the dormitories of schools that serve students facing unique challenges, such as Tribal schools or schools for children with physical, cognitive, or behavioral disabilities.
o Bolstering protections against waste, fraud, and abuse by codifying competitive bidding requirements and clarifying ethics obligations.
o Streamlining the E-rate application process for educators and librarians.
Formally called the Schools and Libraries Universal Service program, the E-rate program provides up to $2.25 billion annually to support telephone and Internet connections at schools and libraries across the country. The program supports both the cost of telecommunications and Internet service and the installation of internal networks. Since it was established by the 1996 Telecommunications Act, the program has connected most of the nation's classrooms to the Internet, and supports continued service and necessary upgrades of school and library networks.
Action by the Commission September 23, 2010, by Report and Order (FCC 10-175). Chairman Genachowski, Commissioners Copps, and Clyburn with Commissioner McDowell approving and dissenting in part and Commissioner Baker approving and concurring in part. Separate statements issued by Chairman Genachowski, Commissioners Copps, McDowell, Clyburn, and Baker.
-FCC-News about the Federal Communications Commission can also be found on the Commission's web site www.fcc.gov.
CHAIRMAN JULIUS GENACHOWSKI
Re: Schools and Libraries Universal Service Support Mechanism, CC Docket No. 02-6, A National Broadband Plan for Our Future, GN Docket No. 09-51
When our schools and students win, our country wins - because education is at the core of the American dream and central to a thriving American economy.
And so today we implement yet another key recommendation of the National Broadband Plan, this one involving broadband for schools and libraries.
Today's Order delivers a substantial modernization and upgrade of the E-rate program. Bringing higher-speed broadband and digital tools to our schools, libraries, and communities will provide economic opportunity now and in the future.
At connected schools, students can access the best libraries in the country, the best learning tools, and the best teachers, wherever they are. A high-school student in a rural town without a calculus teacher can learn calculus remotely, or physics, or Mandarin. Distance learning isn't a substitute for education reform, but it can enhance reform; it can help schools and students in struggling communities have real opportunity, real access, to the best education can offer.
Today's Order recognizes that digital literacy is essential in a digital economy, and that connected schools and libraries are a requirement for digital literacy. Study after study shows the risk we face in a global economy if we fall behind on education, particularly the STEM subjects - science, technology, engineering and math.
We fail our students if we don't teach them basic digital skills. Job postings are increasingly online only, and increasingly require not only online applications but online skills. Broadband in schools is necessary to prepare our students for a 21st century economy.
And what's true of our economy is also true of our democracy. Digital skills underpin full participation in all aspects of our society.
The National Broadband Plan laid out a vision of broadband-enabled, cutting-edge learning inside and outside the classroom.
But the Plan also found that basic broadband connectivity in schools is too slow to keep up with the innovative high-tech tools that are now essential for a world-class education. Almost 80 percent of E-rate recipients say they need faster connections to meet the current speed and capacity demands of schools and libraries. Some schools and libraries still rely on dial-up connections, and many have so-called "broadband" connections that are slower than the average American household's DSL or cable modem service. These connections are far too slow to meet the bandwidth demands of many of today's applications, much less tomorrow's.
Today's Order is fundamentally about empowering schools and libraries. It gives schools and libraries more choices for broadband, enabling them to pick among the full range of options in the marketplace, including leasing low-cost capacity from fiber optic networks that have already been deployed but are not yet being used, and lighting this dark fiber.
The goal is - and I believe the result will be - more bang for the E-rate buck; faster speeds at lower costs. This is a major step toward the Broadband Plan's goal of affordable access to super-high-speed broadband at anchor institutions in every community across the country.
We're not just empowering schools to help students, but also to help their communities. Today's Order gives schools the flexibility to allow their communities to use E-rate-funded broadband after school hours. Think of these as "School Spots" that can provide online access for job searching or government services for people who don't otherwise have access.
Here's an example of what that can mean. Earlier this year, West Virginia took advantage of the provisional waiver we had granted and allowed community access to E-rate facilities for after-hours digital training and computer labs. During the April 2010 Upper Big Branch coal mining disaster, a West Virginia school, whose students were on spring break, provided access to its facilities for use as a government and media command center during the search and rescue efforts.
Today's Order also embraces the real potential of mobile broadband for schools and students, and the promise of digital textbooks. Through a new pilot program, it opens the door for students who now carry 50 pounds of outdated textbooks in their backpacks to instead use digital textbooks or laptops with up-to-date materials and cutting-edge interactive learning tools.
Early experimentation demonstrates the potential of on-the-go learning. In Onslow County, North Carolina, in an experimental program supported by Qualcomm, high school students were given smartphones with 24/7 Internet access. The students who were taught math on these learning devices were more likely to achieve proficiency in Algebra than classmates who had the same teacher but weren't given phones.
Consistent with the recommendations of Senators Rockefeller and Snowe, and Congressman Markey - long-time leaders of connecting classrooms and champions of E-rate - today's Order indexes to inflation the cap on the E-rate program. This is an idea with bipartisan support, implemented with fiscal responsibility. Earlier this month, the Commission recovered and reserved surplus universal service funds for this purpose, meaning that today's decision will not impose any new burden on American consumers.
The cap - put in place when E-rate was still an experiment - has not moved for almost 15 years. Today we know that E-rate works, and that the needs of schools and students significantly exceed what's available. In 1997, a school that needed basic connectivity to the Internet could get a phone line and dial-up Internet service for approximately $25 per month. Today, a school that needs basic connectivity to the Internet at 10 Mbps - the median speed used by E-rate schools and libraries in a survey conducted earlier this year - likely pays at least $500 per month for that service, plus the costs of necessary internal connections.
We could have turned our back on the real needs of students and schools, and the real benefits of E-rate to our economy. Instead, we've taken a fiscally responsible approach that provides much-needed support for our schools and students without growing the Universal Service Fund.
I thank the staff for their work on this item. E-rate has been a success, an example of what can happen when Congress and the FCC have a strategic plan around Internet access, and when it's well implemented by public servants at the federal, state, and local level. This strong Order substantially upgrades and modernizes the E-rate program, creating the conditions for E-rate's continued success in the broadband age.
COMMISSIONER MICHAEL J. COPPS
Re: Schools and Libraries Universal Service Support Mechanism, CC Docket No. 02-6, A National Broadband Plan for Our Future, GN Docket No. 09-51
This is great. Today we take another important step forward to implement the National Broadband Plan, and we do it by expanding the horizons of my favorite program of all-E-Rate. In four months, the Chairman has shepherded through this Commission a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking and, with today's action, an Order that truly move us forward in getting broadband out to those who need it. And who can benefit more from it than our kids? E-Rate has already done so much for so many of them, helping students, and the communities in which they live, to access the digital tools they need to learn, to compete, to find opportunity and to prosper. The good news is E-rate can now do even more. This is a program rife with potential, constrained not by its promise but only by the resources committed to it. Today we begin breathing new life into this awesome program.
I particularly welcome the basic reforms and upgrades in today's Order that will improve and modernize E-Rate, including streamlining the application process and expanding the reach of broadband to the classroom. Lots of E-Rate applicants are going to rejoice in these rule changes. I hope that E-rate recipients will also take advantage of the now permanent opportunity to make E-Rate supported services available to the general public outside of regular school hours. The Commission approved this on an interim basis in February 2010, and I am glad that we are moving quickly forward to make this permanent. There is no reason why such services should go underutilized, provided schools can support the additional use and the E-Rate funding is used for statutorily-intended purposes.
I am also pleased that this item takes on other issues which, while perhaps controversial for some, directly address the National Broadband Plan's goal of promoting further connectivity of broadband to schools and libraries via increased flexibility in the program. Today we finally straighten out the Commission's policy on dark fiber. In 2003, over my opposition, the Commission removed dark fiber from the Eligible Services List. That was a mistake. We repair the mistake in today's item so applicants can lease dark fiber where available and cost-effective. Dark fiber is back on the list and E-Rate applicants will be able to select from a broader range of options as they seek out the best, lowest-cost broadband and telecommunications services to get the job done.
I cautiously support the Order's proposal for a limited pilot program for off-campus wireless connectivity for portable learning devices. I am well aware that existing educational programs incorporating portable devices have seen real and measurable success. And I do believe that E-Rate deserves to be empowered so it can keep up with the latest technologies and with all the new educational tools that are coming online. But while those constraints that I talked about earlier continue to exist, we have to remember that the basic task of this program is to get high speed, high capacity broadband out to schools and libraries-and, until met, that challenge needs to take precedence over other meritorious ideas which could, and will, bring added luster to E-Rate. So I think the pilot program is the way to go, allowing us to design the controls we will need to make sure any expanded general program operates with proper controls and as free as possible from any abuses.
Finally, I have been in favor of indexing the E-Rate cap to inflation for some time. Despite its great success, E-Rate is a capped fund for which demand has consistently surpassed supply. While the Commission annually commits funds to the extent currently permitted by our rules, the demand always exceeds supply, and the program must keep pace with these needs. In addition, since inception of the program, inflation his driven costs up 30 percent, but E-Rate funding has remained constant at the capped amount. That's equivalent to a loss of $675 million in purchasing power. I would be in favor of reconsidering that cap, but I recognize that now-prior to full-scale reform of the entire Universal Service Fund-is not the time to make a change that could affect all programs. However, indexing the cap to inflation right now is a modest adjustment that was recommended in the National Broadband Plan. I also want to note that the Corr Wireless Order, approved unanimously by this Commission earlier this month, explicitly directed USAC to reserve surrendered CETC support for indexing the E-Rate cap to inflation. I issued a statement with the Corr Wireless Order expressing my interest in making sure the surrendered funds were put to good use as quickly as possible, and using that funding to index the cap on E-Rate to inflation certainly accomplishes that. I recognize that the surrendered support in the Corr Wireless Order will go only so far, and at some point funding from contributions may be required. I have no problem with this-E-Rate is the only oversubscribed capped program, and yet it is the most successful of the Universal Service Fund. I can't think of a better purpose for Universal Service than to give our kids-and grandkids-the technology they need for a good education, give library patrons the access they need to find and apply for jobs, and give communities the high-speed broadband service necessary to promote the civic dialogue of the 21st century.
I thank the Chairman for his focus and follow-through concerning both the National Broadband Plan and the E-Rate program. What we do today makes a good program even better, and I hope that my colleagues will continue to work to strengthen the program. And, of course, I want to express my gratitude to the Bureau for its hard and creative work on this item.
COMMISSIONER ROBERT McDOWELL
APPROVING IN PART, DISSENTING IN PART
Re: Schools and Libraries Universal Service Support Mechanism, CC Docket No. 02-6, A National Broadband Plan For Our Future, GN Docket No. 09-51, Report and Order.
When I think of the schools and libraries fund, I often think of my late father. He grew up on a ranch in northern Mexico near the Texas border during the "dustbowl" era of the Great Depression. My grandparents' ranch house did not have electricity or phone service. Furthermore, my father did not have access to a school while living so remotely among the mesquite trees and the jack rabbits. On many evenings, my grandfather would take the battery out of the family's Model A and hook it up to the radio in the house. Often this served as their only connection to the outside world. Despite these obstacles, however, through good fortune and hard work, my father went on to become a senior editor of National Geographic magazine.
Through his experience, I am reminded that many Americans have not been fortunate enough to overcome similar challenges. I also recognize that programs such as E-rate have been instrumental in keeping many of America's schools and libraries connected to the outside world. The program's success was highlighted in the National Broadband Plan, which indicated that 97 percent of American schools are connected to the Internet and that many of those schools have received support from E-rate funds.
In the spirit of carrying out Congress' original mandate to us, I support the bulk of this Report and Order. For example, amending the Commission's rules to permit schools to allow community use of E-rate funded services outside of school hours is a positive development. This change will allow E-rate funds to be leveraged in a manner that will encourage wider broadband use without increasing universal service distributions. During these challenging economic times, it is imperative that our government find ways to be as efficient as possible with our limited resources. Allowing for community use after school hours will help in that effort. In short, our action on this issue today will create efficiencies in a government program.
I am also encouraged that the Report and Order includes a section on streamlining and simplifying the administrative requirements of the application process. Hopefully, these changes will reduce confusion and increase efficiency as well. Additionally, I support the steps to improve safeguards against waste, fraud and abuse. We must always remember that the funds that support the E-rate program come from the contributions of hard-working American consumers. It is their money that we spend. As such, we must take every precaution necessary to earn their trust in the administration of this program.
There are, however, certain parts of this Report and Order that concern me. For example, I do not agree with the decision to raise the $2.25 billion E-rate cap by indexing it to overall inflation. Some consider this increase "offset" by recent "savings" captured in a previous Commission proceeding. Others argue that the cap increase for the upcoming funding year is minimal. Nonetheless, I have long advocated for overall comprehensive reform of the universal service system in lieu of piecemeal alterations, and therefore it makes more sense that any ideas for increasing caps should be debated more thoroughly in that forum.
Additionally, as recently as July 1 of this year, the Commission announced that the fund has retained $900 million in unused money in excess of the existing cap. In light of this, I question why the Commission is raising the cap when the fund has almost $1 billion in left over cash. Again, we should always remember that we should be the prudent stewards of other people's money.
Finally, even if the E-rate program had not been running a surplus, it is not clear to me why it is necessary to index it to inflation of the overall economy rather than inflation in the telecom sector specifically. When comparing the consumer price index for the economy as a whole against the prices for telecom services for the past decade, inflation in the telecom sector has remained essentially flat while the index for all other products and services has risen. This is the first time the E-rate cap has ever been raised, and tying it to a general inflation index may make future support of this program more difficult to achieve. The majority's decision today is not supported by the evidence in the record and is not fiscally prudent. As such, I respectfully dissent from this portion of the Report and Order.
I was originally concerned about the section of the Report and Order that adds dark fiber to the Eligible Services List. For instance, some parties questioned how the competitive bidding process could ensure that arms-length transactions occur when government entities are competing against private businesses. Similarly, some commenters expressed concern that this change could create a competitive bidding process that might not treat all bidders fairly. Additionally, while some argue that this change would actually save money for the program over time, I questioned whether the change could have encouraged large upfront construction costs which, in some instances, could have caused other applications to go unfunded - particularly applications in rural parts of the country - a type of "crowding out" effect. I am thankful that in the past couple days the Chairman and his staff have made great strides to address these concerns in this order. As such, I am comfortable approving this section, especially because having access to competitive dark fiber may reduce costs to the fund. I recognize, however, that the implementation of the competitive bidding process may be complex, and I urge the Commission to keep a close eye on the process as it moves forward.
I do however dissent from the part of the Report and Order that establishes a trial program to support wireless Internet access offsite. I recognize that putting wireless technologies into the hands of students and teachers can be a powerful and exciting way to supplement our education system. Nonetheless, I am concerned that opening up this new spending line item may be far beyond what Congress originally intended when it mandated subsidies for the wiring of schools and libraries to the Internet. Myriad questions abound that should be addressed in a further notice before launching such a trial.
In the absence of a Congressional directive to subsidize each student's wireless connectivity, the Commission should be more faithful to the mission we have been given. As noble an aspiration as it may be to wish for each student in America to enjoy the fruits of having access to the Internet at all times, we risk depleting E-rate funds when we stray from Congress' original intent. It would be unfortunate if the demands of new expenditure streams were to drain the reservoir of funds needed to accomplish the primary objective of the fund: connecting schools and libraries to the Internet. Furthermore, the pilot program is limited primarily if not exclusively to schools that already have existing wireless programs. Why? By definition, if such programs already exist in those areas, and are funded without our help, they do not need E-rate support.
Also, an offsite program could set up a system that could be virtually impossible to monitor and may lead to waste, fraud and abuse. For example, there may not be adequate ways to ensure compliance with the Children's Internet Protection Act. I also wonder how schools could ensure that the use of such devices would be for educational purposes, as Congress intended. It would be more prudent for the Commission to ask these questions, among many others, in a further notice, before launching a trial which may ultimately lead to an appetite for something that the Commission may not have the capacity to support on a larger scale.
In sum, I recognize the significant role programs such as E-rate play. But, the Commission should tread cautiously to ensure that any changes to the program do not cause it to eventually collapse under its own weight. The Commission should avoid veering away from its core mission as set forth by Congress.
I thank the Chairman, my colleagues, and their respective teams for their receptiveness in improving this item.
COMMISSIONER MIGNON L. CLYBURN
Re: Schools and Libraries Universal Service Support Mechanism, CC Docket No. 02-6, A National Broadband Plan for Our Future, GN Docket No. 09-51
Without a doubt, the E-rate program has made a significant impact on the provision of broadband to millions throughout this nation. Our primary anchor institutions-schools and libraries-have encouraged broadband deployment and adoption in many geographic areas that might not otherwise have been offered broadband, but for the program.
By providing broadband access, the E-rate program offers consumers who are unserved at home, some opportunity to get online through their local libraries. In addition, this program has encouraged digital literacy and broadband adoption as both teachers and librarians have taught many students and constituents how to navigate and use the Internet. For teachers and students, E-rate has allowed them to be integrated into the digital world and has expanded their educational opportunities at school. For example, the interactive nature of some educational websites can enhance the learning experience of elementary school students. They can improve their math skills using innovative games offered online. They can explore the wonders of science and be introduced to other countries and cultures currently out of reach, right from their desktops. As educators increasingly integrate the Internet into their lesson plans, faster speeds and additional bandwidth are needed to accommodate all of the interactive, educational uses the Internet offers.
The adjustments we make today to the E-rate program have countless benefits for schools, libraries and their surrounding communities. By indexing the E-rate funding cap to inflation, we are protecting the purchasing power of recipients so they can continue to acquire the critical broadband elements they need to serve and educate our fellow citizens. We also are encouraging faster speeds and more bandwidth to be delivered by permitting schools and libraries to take advantage of fiber networks that have already been built, and through additional competition we advance in this Order, E-rate dollars can be maximized to provide much needed services to more schools and libraries. Finally, by permanently changing our rules to permit E-rate funded services to be used after school hours without reducing benefits, we are encouraging schools to make their facilities available so that more citizens can be served. It is my hope that this will spur further digital literacy and broadband adoption in local communities throughout the nation.
I am a strong proponent of us making the most of what our Universal Service Fund has to offer, and I want to thank the Chairman for his leadership on these issues, and the staff of the Wireline Competition Bureau for their significant and meaningful work on this item.
COMMISSIONER MEREDITH A. BAKER
Approving IN PART, CONCURRing IN PART
Re: Schools and Libraries Universal Service Support Mechanism, CC Docket No. 02-6; A National Broadband Plan for Our Future, GN Docket No. 09-51
I have long supported E-rate and I am pleased to support the initiatives the Commission adopts here today. In the twelve years E-rate has been in place, the program has been instrumental in expanding access to the Internet in our communities across the country through their schools and libraries. The National Broadband Plan found that 97 percent of public schools, and 94 percent of instructional rooms within those schools, now have Internet access. By any measure, that is success and the E-rate program has been critical to that achievement. But more must be done to build on that success in a world in which kids learn through their computers; teachers and parents engage in the learning process through Internet communications; and all generations increasingly depend on their mobile devices. I think this Order takes a number of important steps to modernize E-rate with a responsible approach for the broadband era.
I concur in one aspect of this Order: indexing the annual funding cap. As I have said many times, I continue to have concerns that our efforts to modernize the various components of the Universal Service Fund (USF) should not result in further growth in the overall size of the Fund. While I recognize that any increase in E-rate support is offset with funds reclaimed through our action in another proceeding, I believe it may have been more prudent to delay consideration of increasing the funding cap for E-rate until we are farther down the road of comprehensive reform for all components of the Universal Service Fund, including the high-cost support mechanism. Only then will we be sure that reforms for all USF programs together-some of which continue to grow-can be accomplished without increasing the overall size of the Fund, while achieving Congress's goal of ensuring broadband access by all people of the United States. Finally, I feel strongly that the Commission must remain vigilant with regard to any signs of waste, fraud or abuse of this program. It is our obligation to ensure that money is spent responsibly to achieve the goals set out by Congress.
E-rate is a success story of which this Commission can be proud. By moving forward with common-sense reforms, the program will only get stronger and be the foundation for even more impressive results for our communities in the future. I appreciate the willingness of the Chairman and my fellow commissioners to work together to make this a strong order that addresses all concerns and I would like to thank the staff for their hard work on this item.