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“How do you plead?” Guilty on all counts for thinking E-rate is cool

Phone rings. Caller asks: “What are you working on?”

Answer: “E-rate.”

Dinner conversation: “What did you talk about today, mom?”

Answer (supplied by child 2 and 3 in unison): “E-rate.”

Latest office joke: “Why is Marijke in traffic court?”

Answer: “E-rate.”

E-rate, broadband, and the goals that have guided us

For those of you following the American Library Association’s (ALA) E-rate year, we are working through the fifth major installment in a series of actions by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), responding to the Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (FNPRM) issued in July as part of the E-rate Modernization Order. And, because we have been immersed in E-rate pretty steadily for a year, the topic “E-rate Modernization” is really the only answer to questions about what I do.

As we prepare for both ALA’s comments on the FNPRM (comments due to the Commission September 15–so why am I writing a blog post instead of drafting a response to questions on multi-year contracts?) and for our panel session at the 2014 Telecommunications Policy Research Conference (which will take place amazingly on September 12th), I have been reflecting over the ways in which we have engaged with the Commission, the Hill, our coalitions, our members, other library organizations, the press, and others to make strategic decisions and identify ALA’s policy positions.

If I am boastful, I can say, that we worked diligently over the last year. If I am critical, I can see a series of tipping points where we chose one path over another, which opened opportunities while closing off others. Either way, the decisions we made were in line with the goals we set for ALA at the beginning of the E-rate proceeding, which we saw then and now as an opportunity to increase the percentage of libraries with high-capacity broadband at affordable rates. The goals we set include:

  • Increase library participation in the E-rate program.
  • Increase broadband capacity for libraries.
  • Increase the over-all size of the fund.

Shaping what you have into what you want

Our first choice for the Commission would have been to tackle the “fiber gap” (term that has emerged in the second phase of the Modernization) among libraries before addressing the Wi-Fi- gap. However, when it became apparent that the Commission would address the lack of Wi-Fi capacity for libraries and schools first, we focused on that priority and the commitment of the Commission that this was one phase of a multi-phase process.

At that point we had to answer the question, “What could we gain for libraries in this first step while holding out for a larger pay-off in the second phase?” The interplay between this short-term and long-term strategizing colored the last stages of our advocacy at the Commission and among stakeholders, and with our members and library organizations. Now that we are officially in the second phase, our sleeves are rolled up, teeth bared and claws extended.

These thoughts, as well as “OMG, what are we doing about data that describes the costs to get libraries up to the 1 gigabit goal” ran through my head while I waited for my turn before the bench at traffic court. And why did I spend my afternoon in traffic court? Did you think this was going to be a concise blog post? Is anything E-rate related concise?

E-rate enables anywhere, anytime learning

At the height of negotiations to come to an Order–which we fully supported happening–there was significant back-and-forth among various stakeholders (each with different agendas), numerous ex parte meetings with Commission staff and long phone calls and meetings at the Washington Office. Coincidentally, my then 10th-grade son’s history class unit was on regulatory agencies, and being a teacher at heart, how could I help myself? The E-rate Modernization proceeding makes a perfect case study for a lesson on the responsibilities of federal regulatory agencies and of Congress and how good public policy is made. Poor kid, right? On the contrary.

Explaining E-rate and talking about how a relatively small player like ALA advocates effectively became an exemplary mashup of teen culture and wonky discussions. For example, what do you say to someone who shares information that is not ready to be shared? “Not cool dude.” Getting libraries included routinely in mentions of E-rate? “That’s a mission.” If, in a public document, there is language that could be interpreted such that it clearly dismissed one perspective in favor of another but not overtly, how would you describe this action? “Sneak dissing.” And to the discussion that resulted in traffic court, how does an advocate tread the fine line between passion for an issue and rational decision-making and how does an advocate prevent a personal agenda from influencing strategy on behalf of stakeholders?

Despite my New England pragmatism and Dutch stubbornness, I have a good dose of southern French exuberance. So, in the heat of describing the latest battle, making an extremely important point to the 10th grader about the appalling vitriol that had emerged at the tail end of the proceeding before the July Commission vote that resulted in the Order and FNPRM and how that vitriol was unfortunately influencing policy… I may have not come to a complete stop. Result? An afternoon in traffic court. “Kiiillll” said with appropriate sighing and disbelief (reflecting the sentiment in teen-speak). This may be the only record of a moving violation caused by E-rate (“That’s a bet” or more simply, “bet!”).

So at the recommendation of the police officer issuing the ticket, I plead “guilty with an explanation.” My explanation? “E-rate is really cool.”

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Marijke Visser

As of November 2018, District Dispatch is no longer being updated. It is now being archived for future use. Please visit for the latest news.

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