I did not double check, but I think it’s safe to say that most of the last E-rate posts have mentioned somewhere “over the last year” or “about a year ago” or “beginning last summer.” So… Monday, we saw an inkling of the potential payoff for which we have been holding our collective breath for over a year, since the E-rate modernization proceeding began.
On Monday while we were putting the final touches on our reply comments (pdf) to the E-rate Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Chairman Tom Wheeler delivered remarks at the 2014 Education Technology Summit. The Chairman’s remarks clearly articulated what we have been hoping to hear since the adoption of the changes in the July Order and its Wi-Fi focus. For those of you following along closely, you know we have been advocating strongly for increasing the number of libraries that can report scalable, affordable high-capacity broadband to the building. While our strategy evolved in response to the changing dynamics in D.C. as well as through input from the numerous emails and calls and meetings with ALA’s E-rate Task Force and other library organizations, our goal remains unchanged. We know from more than a decade of research that the fundamental barriers libraries face in increasing broadband capacity are availability and affordability.
On Monday, the Chairman clearly articulated that addressing these barriers is the focus of this next phase of the E-rate modernization efforts:
We have updated the program to close the Wi-Fi gap. Next, we must close the Rural Fiber Gap. So, today, I would like to visit about the next steps in the evolution of the E-rate program. In particular I want to talk about two related issues that remain squarely before the Commission as we consider next steps in the E-rate modernization process: 1) closing the Rural Fiber Gap for schools and libraries, and 2) tackling the affordability challenge.
We know that with the majority of libraries still reporting speeds less than 10 Mbps, there is a long way to go before we can report the majority of libraries are closing in on the gigabit goal set by the Commission in July. And, we know that for most libraries the key to getting there is via a fiber connection regardless of locale.
Our comments also stress the “affordability gap” and we call on the Commission to address both simultaneously, knowing that for many libraries fiber (or other technology) may be in the vicinity of the library, but the monthly cost of service is more than the library can afford so the library ends up saying, “no thank you.” Whether it’s a library struggling along at 3 Mbps to provide video conferencing and distance education services in a rural community; an urban library maxing out every day at 3:00 when school lets out and patrons on their own devices or at the library computers are feeling the stress on the library’s network; or a suburban library planning a multi-media lab and holding work skills classes, we know that two thirds of all libraries want to upgrade to higher speeds. The Commission has clearly opened the door to see that these upgrades can be done through the E-rate program—and that the recurring costs are subsequently affordable.
I would say that over the last year (and leading up to this current proceeding from our earlier work related to the National Broadband Plan in 2010) we worked hard to turn the national emphasis on broadband access and adoption in favor of libraries. with regards to E-rate, we repeatedly asked the question, how should the E-rate program look in the 21st century so that it can best meet the needs of 21st century libraries? Ensuring libraries have the broadband capacity they need is one critical way to shape the program.
A long-standing issue for ALA has been to see the program adequately funded. Our comments ask the Commission to take up the funding challenge, knowing that upgrades will both require immediate investment and likely incur greater monthly costs for service. The data gathering by the Commission and by stakeholders (in addition to the careful review of current program spending, fine-tuning of eligible services, and encouraging economies of scale) will work as guide posts for determining future funding needs of the program. Chairman Wheeler clearly opened the funding door as well and we are confident that “right sizing” the fund for the long haul is firmly on the agenda.
All told, I think we are slowly exhaling. In part because we submitted the reply comments well before the midnight deadline, but really because while we have made some subtle gains over the course of the year’s work (and some not so subtle, perhaps), what we heard from the Chairman on Monday can be read as the Commission making good on its commitment to addressing the “to the library” issue.
There is quite a bit of distance between remarks made in a speech and a Commission order, but the Chairman set an agenda for the E-rate review and modernization and to date, has accomplished much of that agenda. Going from rulemaking to order is an example of the art of compromise and we look forward to helping shape the process. In June in Las Vegas, the E-rate stakes were pretty high. This October in D.C. they will be even higher, but before we deal the last hand, we can step back briefly and quietly say “woo hoo.”