Countries from around the world have been stepping up their efforts to provide better Internet access and cutting edge technologies to their student population. This has not gone unnoticed in the White House. Emphasizing the need to modernize education to maintain competitiveness, the President directs FCC to act on E-Rate and make improvements to the program. He notes a global trend towards the use of interactive and individualized learning powered by innovative tools. Through a multi-sector initiative, he hopes that the same can be provided to all students in the United States. The FCC directive is the first step in realizing this dream.
What is the E-Rate?
The E-Rate has been around since 1996 when it was approved as part of the Telecommunications Act. It was conceived as a way to assist schools and libraries in obtaining advanced telecoms services at reasonable rates. The intention was to make these services available to anyone no matter where they are in the country. Applicants may be given a discount of 20% to 90% depending on their capability to pay for these services, usually measured in the number of students eligible for the national school lunch program. The money comes from collections for the Universal Service Fund.
The Main Goals of the Revamp
The FCC has not put forth any specific plans yet as it is still in the process of gathering feedback and suggestions from stakeholders. However, it did present three main goals which it hopes to achieve within the next few years. The first is increasing broadband speeds for schools and libraries. The second is improving purchasing methods to reduce costs and widen its reach. The third is reshuffling the administrative structure to reduce inefficiencies. Also included in the FCC notice are questions that are aimed at starting the conversation and highlighting the key issues as identified by program the managers.
Tough Questions Need Answers
A number of these questions are technical in nature and require inputs from industry experts. For instance, the FCC asks for opinions on the best technological architecture that may be deployed for this purpose. Answers have been varied. Shifting to fiber optic cables is costly but it can potentially provide a tremendous boost in broadband speeds. Then there are calls to go for a cheaper and less disruptive route that would be more practical for educational institutions. There is also a concern about using a blanket approach, with some preferring to keep the choice in the hands of individual schools.
Also up for discussion is metrics measurement. The FCC would like to be able to gauge the program’s level of success so that it can make decisions on whether or not to continue down a path or change directions if necessary. For instance, they might try to assess the actual speeds achieved by participating schools and check whether it is up to the standards of the program. This is pretty straightforward and only the technical matters have to be cleared up.
A related question is more provocative as it pertains to the effectiveness of E-Rate in uplifting the academic performance of students. Should the FCC measure this as well? If so, how must they go about it? Performance is influenced by a complex web of factors so isolating the benefits of E-Rate is very difficult. There are concerns about tying the program’s success to school performance as it may produce a narrow view if the situation.
Everyone wants students to do better at school as it will have a profound effect on their lives. Yet, as always, the devil is in the details. There are so many ways to implement the program and finding the best path will require extraordinary vision. How the FCC deals with all the issues raised will be interesting to follow.