July 11, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted in a 3-2 vote along party lines to move forward on the next phase of the E-rate Modernization proceeding. The resulting E-rate Report and Order, not yet publicly released, will focus on making Wi-Fi support available to more libraries and schools, streamlining the application and administration of the program, and ensuring the program is cost-effective and efficient to make E-rate dollars go further.
In the final weeks before the Commission vote, ALA invested significant time to make a final play for addressing library issues in the draft order circulated by the Chairman. Through phone calls and emails with the Chairman’s staff and the legal advisors to the Commissioners as well as in-person meetings (logging 12 ex parte filings in the last week of the public comment period alone) we responded directly to questions about our most important issues and further explained the rationale for the positions we have taken. Most notable and described in detail below, is the collaboration between the Association for Rural & Small Libraries (ARSL), the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies (COSLA), the Public Library Association (PLA), and the Urban Libraries Council (ULC); the adoption by the Commission of ALA’s formula proposal; and the video of the FCC Chairman speaking on libraries and E-rate for ALA’s Annual Conference.
E-rate and #alaac14
We headed into Annual Conference on the heels of a packed week of Commission meetings, calls, emails, and more meetings. We secured a “feature-length” video of the Chairman speaking for and on behalf of libraries and their important contributions in the E-rate proceeding. And, in person, Gigi Sohn, Special Counsel for External Affairs to Chairman Wheeler, met informally with PLA leadership, representatives from COSLA, ARSL, the OITP Advisory Committee, and the ALA E-rate task force to talk E-rate details and the nature of library services in today’s and tomorrow’s libraries. In addition to these meetings, Gigi took a field trip to the main library and one of the smaller branches of the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District where we saw a model of what libraries can offer their communities. The experience exposed Gigi to an example of the depth libraries go to understand their demographics (in very specific granularity) and through that, the needs of the communities they serve to truly become the learning hub for the community.
A significant outcome from Annual, and in no small part due to the meetings with Gigi, was the impetus to bring together the library E-rate community in the final advocacy stages to call for swift action on the part of the Commission to move its first step proposal forward. On the last day of public comment before the vote, ALA, ARSL, COSLA, PLA, and ULC filed a joint letter (pdf) supporting this first step in the E-rate modernization process.
E-rate and the tricky business of square footage formulas
Prior to and after Annual, OITP continued its in-depth review of the cost data for Wi-Fi and related services we had gathered from state libraries, library systems, and individual libraries. While many were celebrating a long Fourth of July weekend with picnics and fireworks, the OITP E-rate team made the weekend even longer, . Our team spent the weekend reviewing recently-gathered information in addition to our previous cost analysis to model whether the Commission $1.00 and 6000 floor square foot formula would adequately address library Wi-Fi needs.
We compared itemized lists of equipment and services libraries purchased to support their Wi-Fi and internal connections. We also further studied the potential impact of the proposed Commission library formula for Wi-Fi and related services (the former Priority 2 bucket and the new Category 2) on library applicants. In addition to the data we collected, we consulted with the library organizations that filed the joint letter, who turned to their member leaders for feedback.
In coming to a formula proposal (i.e., $2.30 per square foot or a floor for libraries at or below 4000 square feet of $9,200–over a five year period), we were careful to take into account the fact that a “library formula” must at once be robust and defensible and account for the needs of the smallest to the largest library applicants. A formula is fundamentally different than the historical, solely needs-based funding model for the E-rate program. By its nature, a formula will not provide all of each applicant’s needs. It is a recognition that the Commission must work within an imperfect system and that distributing Wi-Fi funding equitably to as many libraries (and schools) as possible is a positive change to the long-term lack of such funding to any libraries.
E-rate and the near future
The now Order and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking adopted by the Commission on Friday will address a significant shortfall for libraries and schools and seeks to close the “Wi-Fi gap” as well as simplify the administration and application processes, and maximize the cost effectiveness of the program. After long hours of negotiating with Commission staff, we are gratified to learn that ALA’s proposal for the per-square-foot library formula has been adopted. Though the Order is not public as of this writing, we understand that a number of ALA’s other proposals are included in some fashion (refer to the Fact Sheet summarizing the content of the Order). Significantly, we learned the Commission’s continued commitment to addressing the connectivity gap (i.e., the lack of high-capacity broadband to the majority of the nation’s libraries) is part of its continued review of the E-rate program.
In addition to the Order, as part of its 11th hour negotiations, the Commission elected to call for further public input to address the long-term funding issues that have plagued the program, and a call to revisit the new per pupil and per square foot allocation model for Wi-Fi (Category 2) funds as well as outstanding issues that are not folded into the Order. We will weigh in on this important addendum to the process because, as Commissioner Clyburn noted in her statement, (pdf) “Our work is not done and we will continue to contemplate how to close these gaps and ensure that all schools and libraries have affordable access to the connectivity to and within their buildings.”
We expect that the Commission will release the Order and FNPRM this week, at which time a number of us in the Washington Office will hit the print button so we can read and digest what we hear is 158 pages. We will provide a summary and are planning outreach to the library community. We anticipate USAC will be providing in-depth outreach and we are also talking to Commission staff to develop some library specific outreach materials. More to come!