E-rate: 900 questions and several late nights later

Yes, it’s true. With this post, we now have a verifiable E-rate streak established in our District Dispatches (here and here, if you’d like to play along).

The Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) is the most significant one for E-rate since the program’s inception. It involves every aspect of the program, asking over 900 questions–ranging from radical restructuring of the program to the most modest of tweaks. This wide-ranging examination and possible re-engineering of the E-rate program represents a great opportunity and some risk for the library and school communities. Hence, this will not be the last blog post you see related to E-rate!

Since the release of the NPRM on July 23, ALA staff and members have spent several hundred hours reading, discussing, analyzing and prioritizing the work ahead.  Many more hundreds of hours stretch in front of us for drafting, additional analysis and engaging with FCC staff and other stakeholders. At this point in the process, we want to share an early look at some of the priority issues on which we expect to submit comments. This is certainly not comprehensive with respect to all of these issues and, of course, priorities may evolve as our analysis proceeds, and we receive input from the library community.

It is important to start with a review of the motivating political context for this NPRM. President Obama announced the ConnectED initiative in June. Central to ConnectED is the proposition that students must have access to high-capacity broadband as the underlying force on which critical digital learning takes place. ConnectED calls for 99 percent of K12 students to have access to high-speed broadband within five years and the E-rate program as the primary mechanism to achieve this goal. One political manifestation of the use and dependence on E-rate occurred in last month’s hearing at the Senate Commerce Committee, at which Maine State Librarian Linda Lord testified.

While the NPRM is responsive to the ConnectED initiative, the FCC is using this opportunity to review and possibly modify virtually every aspect of the E-rate program. The FCC states three overarching goals for the program and structures its questions and proposals within these purposes (a bit more detail may be found in the FCC fact sheet):

  1. Ensuring schools and libraries have affordable access to 21st century broadband that supports digital learning; (this is the goal directly related to ConnectED)
  2. Maximizing the cost-effectiveness of the E-rate program;
  3. Streamlining the administration of the E-rate program.

Priority Issues

Funding issues appear in the NPRM in a number of guises. Several questions relate to how E-rate discounts are allocated to libraries and schools. For example, should the funding priority levels be eliminated or expanded? How should the discount matrix be revised–should the definitions of rurality or poverty be adjusted and how, and what are the proper levels for the applicant match?

Larger funding allocation issues also are on the table. Current discounts are based on levels of poverty and the actual cost of E-rate eligible services. The FCC asks whether funding should be based on a general parameter such as the population of the service area, number of library card holders, or other metric. Also, should support for certain “outdated” technologies be phased out so that high-capacity broadband may be better funded?

New funding also is discussed, though in a somewhat muted fashion. With demand already double the available E-rate funding, ALA will submit comments on raising the funding cap for the program. Funding for special initiatives, to accelerate progress towards the President’s ConnectED goals, is proposed, and we are considering library-centric possibilities to launch if indeed such funding is identified.

Broadband technology and metrics are a priority. Schools have a specific goal suggested by the FCC in paragraphs 22-24 in the NPRM (at least 100 Mbps per 1,000 students and staff by the end of the 2014-15 school year and at least 1 Gbps per 1,000 by the end of the 2017-18 school year). Should libraries have an analogous goal and, if so, what should it be? The FCC is promoting high-capacity broadband solutions generally, and we will be commenting on how they should be carried out, especially the role of fiber technology and how broadband construction projects should be funded.

There are many proposals for simplification and improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the program. Of these possibilities, we expect to comment on direct payments to recipients; reducing the application burdens for multi-year projects; consortia and bulk-buying arrangements; and favoring the use of existing state and local procurement procedures. In a number of places, the FCC proposes additional applicant/recipient data collection and procedures. We are cautious about increasing the burden on libraries in the name of increasing program efficiency and effectiveness and will review this area carefully.

The interpretation of CIPA with respect to E-rate also is discussed and demands careful attention at a time when BYOD is becoming more and more common in our libraries.

Conclusion

All questions and proposals have the possibility of creating unintended consequences for which the E-rate program is dubiously famous. As Linda Lord put it, “E-rate is a chess game.” Weighing options, interpreting intent, negotiating politics of one path over another and formulating a library position is all part of the final product ALA will submit on September 16 when comments are due. (And we will almost certainly submit reply comments, due October 16).

We also are developing a plan for engaging stakeholders. Developing the substance of our positions is obviously critical, but positions are not valuable unless they are communicated and adopted by key decision makers and influencers. Certainly, advocacy for various policy positions will be intense. Discussions and informal input will continue, perhaps for many months, after the October 16 date.

We look forward to working with the library community to receive broader perspectives and suggestions. Please let us know if you have specific questions or concerns as we go along.

Marijke began at OITP in 2009 to support a grant project funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation looking at broadband capacity in public libraries. She immediately became immersed in broadband adoption and E-rate issues and has not looked back. Marijke leads and coordinates all of ALA’s work on E-rate. She is also co-chair of the Edlinc Coalition, the primary coalition promoting E-rate policy for libraries and schools at the national level. In addition to E-rate, Marijke supports the Program on Networks focusing on broadband adoption issues for diverse populations. Marijke also serves as Program Director for OITP’s emerging portfolio on children, youth, and technology. Prior to coming to OITP, Marijke worked for several community organizations that focused on empowering at-risk populations, especially focusing on youth and pre-school children. She continues to have a strong inclination to find projects that address access to information barriers so everyone, regardless of circumstance, can access, apply, and benefit from information in any format. Marijke received her master’s degree in library science from Indiana University, Indianapolis.

Posted in E-Rate, OITP, Public Libraries, School Libraries, Telecommunications Tagged with: ,
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