The FCC’s Plan to Make Internet Faster in Schools

The agency aims to restructure the program that helps connect schools and libraries to the Internet.

Nursery school pupils work with tablet computers on March 18, 2013 in Haguenau, northeastern France.
National Journal
Laura Ryan
Feb. 5, 2014, 10:25 a.m.

The Fed­er­al Com­mu­nic­a­tions Com­mis­sion is try­ing to move fast to make the In­ter­net in schools faster. 

FCC Chair­man Tom Wheel­er an­nounced Wed­nes­day that the agency will make con­nect­ing U.S. schools and lib­rar­ies to high-speed broad­band the No. 1 pri­or­ity for its school In­ter­net pro­gram, known as E-Rate. To carry out this goal, the FCC will re­struc­ture how E-Rate is man­aged and where its money is spent by 2015.

E-Rate was cre­ated in 1996 to sub­sid­ize In­ter­net con­nec­tions for schools and lib­rar­ies with funds from fees on tele­phone bills through the Uni­ver­sal Ser­vice Fund. But E-Rate has lagged be­hind the pace of tech­no­logy and is fre­quently cri­ti­cized for be­ing waste­ful and in­ef­fi­cient.

Ac­cord­ing to Wheel­er, 80 per­cent of schools par­ti­cip­at­ing in E-Rate say their In­ter­net speed is too slow to carry out their edu­ca­tion­al goals and only 50 per­cent of E-Rate’s funds are spent on broad­band con­nectiv­ity.

The FCC an­nounced Monday that it will double its in­vest­ment in high-speed In­ter­net con­nectiv­ity — from $1 bil­lion to $2 bil­lion — im­me­di­ately by re­or­gan­iz­ing how ex­ist­ing funds are spent. A broad­er re­struc­tur­ing of the pro­gram’s man­age­ment aims to make more money avail­able for broad­band in schools in the long run.

“In my ex­per­i­ence as a busi­ness­man I have of­ten found the biggest im­me­di­ate op­por­tun­it­ies are un­locked by first look­ing care­fully at how to do bet­ter with what you already have,” Wheel­er said dur­ing his re­marks at the Lib­rary of Con­gress.

The chair­man did not rule out tak­ing ad­di­tion­al meas­ures if ne­ces­sary to in­crease fund­ing for E-Rate, which could po­ten­tially mean a small in­crease in phone bills.

Jon Wilkins, act­ing man­aging dir­ect­or for man­ag­ment at FCC and a former part­ner at McKin­sey, is lead­ing the re­view of the pro­gram. The agency will be­gin ac­cept­ing pub­lic com­ments in the com­ing weeks and aims to is­sue an or­der later this spring, with the goal of hav­ing re­forms in place by 2015.

These re­forms are aimed at help­ing Pres­id­ent Obama achieve his goal of con­nect­ing 99 per­cent of U.S. schools to high-speed In­ter­net with­in 5 years, and come one day after the pres­id­ent an­nounced $750 mil­lion worth of dona­tions from the private sec­tor to boost tech­no­logy in schools.

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