Last week, Federal Communications Commission Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel called for (pdf) a thorough review of the E-rate program to ensure the program meets the future connectivity needs of libraries and schools. The Commissioner boldly outlined her vision for E-rate 2.0, building on earlier statements from Senate Commerce Committee Chair Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) during a recent FCC oversight hearing.
Knowing that the demand from libraries and schools for internet access and telecommunications is only going to increase in the coming years (given the more complex applications and services these entities provide), the Commissioner challenged her audience to “work with the Federal Communications Commission and reboot, reinvigorate, and recharge the nation’s largest education technology program.” Though she was speaking to leaders in the ed tech community, the Commissioner’s challenge is directed at the library community, as well. Rosenworcel is a staunch supporter of libraries stemming from her days as counsel to the Senate Commerce Committee under the leadership of Senator Rockefeller.
What does E-rate 2.0 mean to Commissioner Rosenworcel?
“We need to protect what we have already done, build on it, and put this program on a course to provide higher speeds and greater opportunities in the days ahead.”
The Commissioner identified five points as part of her E-rate 2.0 plan. The American Library Association (ALA) was pleased to hear that infusing more funding into the program was her number one point. She suggested the Commission do some of its own “housekeeping” in other Universal Service programs that could yield savings that could be invested in the E-rate program. With demand for priority one services alone exceeding the total funds available in fiscal year 2012, ALA and our members have been very concerned about the demand estimate for 2013.
Point two of the plan deals with identifying concrete goals for the “right” capacity for libraries and schools. ALA has always said that the amount and the quality of the bandwidth available to a library should not be a limiting factor in the services it can provide its patrons. Commissioner Rosenworcel proposes that providing gigabit service to libraries and other anchor institutions is the right path to follow. We concur—knowing that libraries need to be on par with schools looking to future capacity needs.
The Commissioner also acknowledged the impact of the complex application process on potential participants in the E-rate program, particularly for small and rural applicants. Among her suggestions were looking at the benefits of multi-year contracts and consortia applications. Many libraries are involved in multi-year contracts and consortia, and ALA supports further improvements that would make the process less burdensome while still ensuring accountability.
In addition to these three points that speak directly to library concerns, the Commissioner proposed investigating how public-private partnerships could support workforce development by investing in education-enhancing technologies for classrooms and communities across the country. Clearly, this should apply to not only the future workforce, but those that already are out of school and turning to our nation’s public libraries. Finally, the Commissioner recommended studying the impact of the recent School Spots program that allows schools to open their doors to the public after hours for public broadband access. ALA supports the idea that before going further with this program that it would serve the Commission well to understand its impact to date in light of the current demand on the fund and the need to build its base.
The ALA Office for Information Technology Policy, with the E-rate Taskforce and our network of state E-rate coordinators, continues to build our vision for E-rate 2.0. As part of this work, we must also amplify the successful elements of the program that have allowed libraries across the country to provide their communities with critical services. We have been gathering stories from library applicants about the services libraries provide today that they did not or could not without E-rate support. The examples we have are too numerous to list here but range from a father receiving X-rays of his son in another country to give to his doctor in the U.S., to students taking a virtual fieldtrip at a museum across the country in a rural library, to recently unemployed people learning new technology skills in a library class. ALA is committed to strengthening the already successful E-rate program so that services such as these and ones we have yet to identify can continue regardless of library size or geographical location.
We appreciate the forward thinking of Commissioner Rosenworcel and her clear challenge to the library and school communities. We have a job ahead, but are rolling up our sleeves and are ready to work with the Commission to ensure a robust and sustainable E-rate program that meets the future needs of our libraries and schools so we can meet the future needs of our communities.