If there is such a thing, this may be a quiet period for the ongoing E-rate proceeding that officially started in July with the FCC’s release of the E-rate Notice of Proposed Rulemaking now that the official comment periods are over. The path getting from point A (the NPRM release) to point B (an FCC order), is a long one. While there may appear to be a lull in the action, this is the period when the end product is truly shaped out of the broad range of recommendations; arguably, the most critical time of an FCC proceeding.
Backing up to the November 8 reply comment deadline, it is gratifying to see the number of library comments filed. Among them: the Idaho Commission for Libraries, the Illinois State Library, the Kentucky Department of Libraries, the West Virginia Library Commission; libraries that filed in collaboration with other city of state agencies such as the Chicago Public Library, the Free Library of Philadelphia, the Alaska State Library, the Hawaii State Public Library System, the State Library of New York; COSLA (Chief Officers of State Library Agencies) and the Urban Libraries Council. Libraries also were well-represented in comments from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Knight Foundation.
Filling the record with these substantive comments on critical library issues adds tremendous value to our own ALA comments. Commenters overwhelmingly agree that for libraries to provide community services, the E-rate program must be fully funded immediately and also take into account the trend for applicants to seek increased bandwidth speeds where they are available. Commenters filed on the lack of affordable options for high-capacity broadband where it is available, specifically in rural areas but also in areas that serve the urban poor. These comments also build on previous library comments filed during the initial round providing the Commission with additional library-specific information in a proceeding that has pulled stakeholders out of a much broader pool than in previous E-rate proceedings.
After the September 16 and November 8 deadlines, work continues but slightly less visibly in the form of individual meetings with Commissioners, their staffs, and with the Wireline Bureau E-rate team. Evidence of the ongoing work shows up in ex parte filings. To date there are over 80 of these records of individual meetings on commenters’ issues, questions, clarifications, additional data, and other information, all of which is included in the final record that makes up an FCC order, the end result of a rulemaking.
ALA, for instance, recently met with the Wireline Bureau E-rate team, Commissioner Rosenworcel and her Wireline legal advisor, Christi Barnhardt, and Nick Degani, Wireline legal advisor to Commissioner Pai. During these meetings, we further described the two-prong approach we advocate for ensuring libraries have the high-capacity broadband they need. First, we seek an immediate infusion of funding to the E-rate program for build-out in areas where high-capacity broadband is not available to libraries and schools. This temporary program, “ConnectUS,” builds on the President’s ConnectED initiative. Second, ALA proposes a pilot program, “FINAL,” targeted to libraries where capacity is available but where costs inhibit them from taking advantage of higher speeds. In the coming weeks we plan to further develop these two concepts and have been seeking input from members of the Washington Office telecommunications subcommittee, the E-rate Task Force and other library leaders. (We also have a running list of additional questions from the FCC for which we are gathering examples from the library community).
In addition to meeting on our own, we have meetings with our coalitions, SHLB (the Schools, Health and Library Broadband Coalition–see their ex parte filings on apps.fcc.gov) and EdLiNC (the Education and Library Networks Coalition). We anticipate another round of ex parte meetings, likely to continue up until that indeterminate deadline when the Commission announces it will put an order up for vote during an open Commission meeting.
So is there really a lull in the E-rate action? Apparently not.