How many pizzas can you get for $1.5 billion?

Photo by Robert D Peyton via Flickr

Photo by Robert D Peyton via Flickr

Yesterday the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) brought the E-rate modernization proceeding to a conclusion with all the bravado it deserved. To a packed room, including library directors, teachers, a superintendent, a school principal and a handful of school students from D.C. public schools, the FCC staff presented the E-rate Order that the Chairman had circulated to his colleagues three weeks ago.

We at the American Library Association (ALA) had a pretty good understanding of what would be included in yesterday’s Order through our numerous briefings from the Chairman’s staff. Thankfully, it looks like things have not changed since the last update before the Commission’s sunshine period began (all hush-hush negotiations among the Commissioners when they no longer take public comment but finish digesting the public record to make sure the final item is commensurate with that record and the Commission’s own data and goals).

Despite interruptions during the open meeting from net neutrality protesters, the meeting and subsequent vote went forward smoothly. Richard Reyes-Gavilan spoke eloquently about the many services the D.C. Public Library provides all D.C. residents. These span the gamut from “basic human services such as applying for health benefits and communicating with loved ones” to those that change lives as shown in the story from The Washington Post, he related:

“[A]bout a 69-year old man who was set on rebuilding his life after 40 years of incarceration. With few other places to turn, he began taking computer classes at the Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) Library. He learned to apply for jobs online and now he’s employed full-time at the University of the District of Columbia.”

Reyes-Gavilan, also showed the Commission where libraries with high-capacity broadband are heading in describing the DC Tech Meetup held monthly in the MLK Library where “hundreds of technologists gather to pitch ideas, demonstrate new products, and network with potential collaborators and funders.”

While Richard spoke on behalf of libraries, during the meeting, he was joined by colleague Nicholas Kerelchuck, manager, MLK Library Digital Commons, as well as Andrea Berstler, executive director, Wicomico Public Library; and Rose Dawson, director of Libraries, Alexandria Library. Each of whom could add similar examples of why high-capacity broadband is the currency of libraries today and why what the Commission accomplished today, can make a difference for so many libraries across the country.

What’s in the Order?

The shiny object that tops the list of all the press headlines and most of the organizations’ statements issued yesterday, including ALA’s, is the additional $1.5 billion that will be added to the program, immediately increasing available funding to $3.9 billion (plus annual inflation) from here on out.

Equally important to the additional funding are the policy changes the Commission adopted to address the to the library broadband capacity issues—geared to help more libraries get the speeds they desperately need.

Throughout the E-rate proceeding, ALA pushed the Commission to take up this issue. Yesterday we were rewarded for our efforts. While we do not have the Order in hand yet to read the exact details, FCC staff described the changes (pdf) during the meeting. They will “maximize the options schools and libraries have for purchasing affordable high-speed broadband” and include:

  • Additional flexibility for libraries and schools seeking to purchase high-speed broadband by suspending the amortization requirements for new construction and allowing applicants to pay for the non-discounted portion over multiple years;
  • In 2016, equalizing the Commission’s treatment of dark and lit fiber and allowing for self-construction when these options are the most cost-effective solutions;
  • Providing up to a 10 percent match to state funding for construction with special consideration for tribal libraries and schools; and
  • Requiring carriers that receive Connect America funding to offer high-speed broadband to libraries and schools located in their service areas.
Erate-photo-ChairmanWheeler-FCC-Dec2014

Larra, Marijke, and Alan with Chairman Wheeler

These rule changes have very real potential for libraries that have been struggling to increase broadband-capacity. But do not fear. We at ALA, with the help of the E-rate task force, our telecommunications subcommittee, Bob Bocher, an OITP Fellow, and our consultants, are rolling up our sleeves to determine the most effective outreach and support activities. We will also be working with the Public Library Association (PLA), the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies (COSLA), as well as the Association for Rural and Small Libraries (ARSL), and other groups to make sure we address the most pressing concerns in the coming weeks.

What do pizza and E-rate have in common?

A number of my E-rate posts refer to my kids (they can tell you what universal service is, what the Senate Commerce Committee does, the difference between category 1 and 2, and what amortization means. We’re working on what a form 470 is—poor things). At least one of my posts refers to food. This one is both.

My son texts me, “what’s for dinner” while we at the office are reflecting on the events of the day. So, because my fridge has been empty (really empty) for the last several weeks, I text back a math problem. How many pizzas can you buy for $1.5 billion? Well, about 150 million which may be any teenager’s dream come true. But we won’t get any no matter how big the check is if we don’t place the order. The same holds true for libraries and E-rate. It would not matter if we had an additional $150 billion unless libraries place their order for E-rate eligible services—and in a big way.

It is true that the changes the Commission made to the program between the July Order and yesterday’s Order will take some real effort to navigate and it’s true that there are wrinkles that need ironing out by the Commission and USAC. This next year will undoubtedly be rocky while those who support E-rate applicants struggle to make sense of the changes and figure out how best to support individual libraries. It takes a village, and libraries should well understand that phrase if the stories I have been collecting are truly indicative of the tenacity of librarians today.

The Commission removed barriers in its rules to open the door for more libraries to get more funding for more broadband. It is now up to the library community to walk through those doors.

As always, more in the near future. Next post could very well have cocktails involved.

About Marijke Visser

As associate director and senior policy advocate, Marijke leads and coordinates all of ALA’s work on E-rate. In addition, 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.

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