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Look closely at your next cell phone or Internet bill. Tucked under monthly plan charges, taxes, and payments received is an often overlook line item titled “Federal Universal Service Fee.”

This rarely noticed charge helps fund a variety of programs that enable families, libraries, and schools to stay connected.

One of those programs is the Universal Service Program for Schools and Libraries, better known as E-rate.

E-rate helps schools and libraries get affordable Internet access by discounting the cost of service based on the school’s location – urban or rural – and the percentage of low-income students served.

Discounts can range from 20 to 90 percent of eligible costs – routers, firewalls, wireless access point, and Internet service fees, among other things – but the program’s funding is capped at $2.4 billion annually.

That cap has remained unchanged since the program started in 1996, despite rapidly increasing demand from schools. The funding requested by schools reached nearly $5 billion in 2012 and 2013, according to District Administration magazine.

A recent order to modernize E-rate, the first update to the plan in nearly two decades, doesn’t increase the annual cap, but it does promise extra money for Wi-Fi and broadband access, two priorities of the Obama administration. The Federal Communications Commission set aside an additional $2 billion over the next two years to help schools upgrade their Internet connections so that those connections meet the standards set out by the State Education Technology Directors Association.

Several school districts within the League of Innovative Schools are putting E-rate funds to good use by expanding the capacity of their Internet network, purchasing tablets and mobile devices for students and teachers, and supporting innovation in classrooms.

West Ada School District in Idaho, for example, set aside federal E-rate funds to award grants to individual educators, supporting technology that teachers discovered and wanted to use.

Riverside Unified School District in California and Piedmont City School District in Alabama both used Learning On-the-Go, a pilot program through E-rate, to connect students at home, too.

Piedmont, a small rural district nestled in the Appalachian foothills, used $896,000 in from the E-rate pilot program to build a wireless network that covered the entire town, providing students and families with free Internet access at home.

Meanwhile, Riverside used their $9 million E-rate subsidy to purchase mobile learning devices equipped with 4G data connectivity. With approaches like these, digital learning doesn’t stop when students leave the classroom.


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