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Update: On July 11, the FCC approved Chairman Tom Wheeler’s E-rate modernization order. We applaud this decision as a crucial first step toward connecting all students with learning opportunities and ensuring schools are future ready. Let’s use this momentum to create modernization measures that are sustainable well into the future.

I’ve been known to have a glass-half-full outlook. That’s especially true when it comes to improving learning opportunities through technology and the Internet, particularly for underserved communities. So, although there is still much work to do, I’m encouraged by recent national efforts to connect 99 percent of America’s students to learning technologies, next-generation broadband, and high-speed wireless in schools and libraries.

After months of input from many stakeholders, on June 20, the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission Tom Wheeler, circulated an E-rate modernization order intended to be the next step in the FCC’s broader work to reform the program. E-rate, an 18-year-old program, has been successful at providing subsidies for Internet connectivity to schools and libraries; now we must expand it to ensure all schools are future ready.

There are three elements of the order are particularly promising.

  1. Close the Wi-Fi gap and connect millions of studentsToday, nearly 60 percent of schools lack the high-speed Wi-Fi networks that allow for the effective use of technology in the classroom. That’s more than 30 million students who are in danger of being left behind. The chairman’s plan will commit at least $1 billion to support Wi-Fi upgrades to connect more than 10 million students in 2015, and another $1 billion in 2016 with predictable support continuing in future years. More specifically, every school will receive $150 per student, multiplied by the district’s discount rate, with a set minimum for small schools. That total amount can be spent at any point over five years.
  2. Lower broadband costs by increasing price transparencyIt is also critical that every dollar is spent as efficiently and productively as possible. For school leaders, simply understanding what your neighbors and peers around the country are paying for Internet access can have considerable impact on lowering costs for broadband. The E-rate program today is a closed system that does not allow for data sharing and analysis. The chairman’s recent order proposes an open data policy, which will provide schools with the information they need to negotiate better broadband prices.
  3. Decrease the burden on districts by simplifying the E-rate applicationDistricts across the country have called on the FCC to simplify and streamline the E-rate application process, and Chairman Wheeler’s proposal addresses just that. This order can speed up the application process, including an expedited procedure for multiyear contracts and small-dollar amount applications.

This E-rate order provides an opportunity to use available funds today to improve connectivity for millions of students. To avoid sending a message that access to learning opportunities is a fixed or short-term concern, the modernization process must continue beyond the first order. This immediate action can help us take advantage of the growing opportunity to improve learning right away and continue to do so going forward.


About Karen Cator

Karen Cator is President & CEO of Digital Promise. You can follow her on Twitter at @kcator.

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