Schools and libraries across the country may soon be getting faster Internet and broadband connections, if the President and the FCC get their way. The FCC has determined that the money that is now budgeted for outdated pagers and mobile phones for public institutions should be redirected into broadband and high speed internet for schools and libraries.
The e-rate program, which was launched in 1996, provides a fund for schools and libraries for technology. It includes funding for things like 800 numbers, pagers, mobile phones, and email. Many, however, find these technologies outdated. Tod Newcombe of Government Technology writes:
But in the years since the e-rate program was launched in 1996 as part of the Telecommunications Act, "Technology has changed; the needs of schools have changed; [and] the e-rate program must reflect this change," Wheeler said. He recalled an incident in Michigan when elementary school students were midway through a 45-minute online math test when the system crashed as a result of inadequate bandwidth. The students had to retake the entire exam.
The E-Rate program receives about $2.25 billion annually from the Universal Service Fund. This fund was set up in the 1930s to bring phone service to rural areas and low income families, says Newcombe. The now $8.5 billion program collects a tax fund on different phone services to promote the growth of telecommunications in rural and high-cost areas of the country.
The wireless upgrade is part of a large list of modernization goals put in place by the FCC that include but are not limited to providing schools and libraries with cost effective high-speed broadband access to help support digital learning, maximizing the cost-effectiveness of e-rate monies, and streamlining administration of the system.
EducationSuperHighway.org has found that close to half of the E-Rate funds sent to schools is spent on services other than broadband, wifi or the Internet. According to Maggie Severns of politico.com, web hosting, email, cell and landlines are costing schools and e-rate fund $1.1 billion of their roughly $2.4 billion dollar budget.
If the FCC was to divert all of that money into broadband purchasing, it would connect 96%of schools to high-speed, broadband Internet. EducationSuperHighway's report was done by looking into the $350 million in E-Rate funding inquiries from more than one 1,000 local school districts in 45 states that total more than 11,000 schools.
For all of the talk about connecting libraries and schools to high speed Internet and technologies, there remains a problem, reports Sean Cavanagh of Education Week. Between rich and poor K-12 schools, there remains a great difference in the quality of technology between the haves and have nots.
President Barack Obama's ConnectED program wants to see 99% of schools with high speed Internet in five years, writes Cavanagh. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. Richer schools get high speed Internet at -one-third of the price of poorer schools. This could be due to geographic location, competing Internet companies or several other factors.