Last week, the Federal Communications Commission took its first steps to make good on President Obama’s ConnectED initiative to provide 99 percent of U.S. students with high-speed broadband through their schools or libraries in the next five years.
On July 23, the FCC released its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, a 175-page document outlining categories of E-Rate policy that are up for discussion and reform as they begin the process of overhauling the whole program. The E-Rate program was created back in 1996, and with the exception of a some small changes in 2010, very little has been done to reform or re-prioritize spending. However, the landscape around technology and Internet capabilities has changed drastically since then.
With this notice, the FCC has opened up channels for feedback and comments from school districts, broadband providers, and lobbyists of every flavor on what worked--and didn't--with past E-Rate policies. They will continue to take comments from the public from now until September 16.
But will this be enough? And what does "dark fiber" have to do with it?
The main goals of overhauling the program include improving broadband capabilities, promoting cost-effective purchasing, and streamlining evaluation and measurement processes. Organizations like Education Superhighway, the nonprofit at the forefront of tackling the issue of broadband adoption in schools, has weighed in on key areas the FCC should focus on. In a phone conversation with EdSurge, CEO Evan Marwell outlined some major priorities:
1. Broadband, Broadband, Broadband: Funding both telecommunication services and Internet services with equal priority is a model that is out of date. Broadband should come first. The country won’t make it to ubiquitous access in 5 years if the FCC doesn’t put it as the top priority. Digital content and other instructional tools are being delivered via the web, not archaic phone lines.
2. Provide Capital for Dark Fiber: Sounds like a supervillain. But in fact, dark fiber can be a school’s new best friend. It is a type of cable you install to get connectivity. Today, most schools use the fiber networks that are already provided by their carrier. However, according to Marwell, schools could cut costs dramatically if they owned or leased their own dark fibers.
Right now, most schools pay $40 per megabit through their service provider (the lowest reported is $10 per megabit). If schools were to lease their own dark fiber, they would pay 50 cents to $1 per megabit. They could even get the cost below 6 cents per megabit if they owned the fiber. “This is the only way to get everyone what they need under the current budget,” says Marwell.”
But there is a hefty price tag. Marwell estimates upfront capital costs at around $5-7 billion for all schools in the U.S. However, if funding can be found to cover these costs, the current E-Rate budget could actually cover all schools to provide broadband, and the payback on the investment can be made in as little as 18 months.
3. Incentivize Schools Purchasing Together: In order to get the best deal possible, the FCC should create incentives for schools to band together their purchasing power to reduce costs and services.
4. Transparency: Currently, no one has any idea how much each school district is spending on broadband needs. The FCC could create a more equal playing ground, and prevent two adjacent schools from paying massively different prices for their services, by tracking how much is being spent and making that information available to the public.
5. Simplify the Process: Big school districts currently hire consultants to help them with their E-Rate application since the process can be complicated and difficult to sift through. This becomes a problem for small school districts who can’t afford to pay these middlemen. Simplifying the process will allow those with less resources to partake and benefit from the program.
Who’s around the table?
Marwell expects this to be the biggest thing that happens on the federal level for education all year. School districts and state departments of education will be sure to chime in on how to ways to disburse E-Rate funds in a more equitable and efficient manner.
And there are major players in the private sector involved, all of whom have financial and political capital at stake. The biggest ones at the table include telecommunication powerhouses AT&T, Verizon and Comcast. Equipment providers like Cisco will also have their two cents to throw in, along with industry advocates like the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA).
What are the next steps?
From now until September 16, the FCC invites the public to comment on its proposed rule updates. Afterwards, the public will have until October 16 to file their replies to those comments. Once the brainstorm period is over, the FCC commissioners will use their findings to come up with a ruling on how they will change the E-Rate policies that are closer in line with the President’s new initiative. This process is expected to take at least six months.