Is E-Rate doing enough to effectively expand broadband in rural schools?
- Some 6% of U.S. public schools serving around 6.5 million students still fail to meet federal connectivity benchmarks, even with funding set aside to expand access to high-speed connections in programs like the Federal Communications Commission's E-Rate, according to The Hechinger Report.
- The bulk of these schools (80%) are in rural areas, and numbers from nonprofit EducationSuperHighway show that the Universal Service Administrative Company, which oversees E-Rate for the FCC, takes an average of nine months and tends to deny 30% of fiberoptic project requests for these schools, as opposed to the 4% denial rate for "typical" E-Rate projects.
- Despite FCC Chairman Ajit Pai's calls for more efficient E-Rate application processing, EducationSuperHighway Founder and CEO Evan Marwell suggests the denials are rooted in the prioritization of concerns around avoiding waste or abuse of funds over connecting more schools.
Funding from programs like the FCC's E-Rate can be a crucial factor in connecting schools lacking resources, especially in rural areas. As The Hechinger Report also notes, the communities these schools are located in often already face uphill battles with getting things like fiberoptic lines installed to begin with, as an internet service provider won't get as much return-on-investment on running 10 miles of fiber for a rural customer base as they would in a city, such as San Francisco.
One would expect that the FCC under Pai would make connecting schools in these communities a higher priority for E-Rate, given the chairman's past comments and his concerns about the efficiency of the application process. He's criticized the agency's December 2014 E-Rate modernization changes as "financially irresponsible" and not doing enough to help rural schools, and has also told Congress that he has long believed "E-rate is a program worth fighting for." But there was also some concern raised following his appointment to head the agency when a report highlighting the program's success was reportedly withdrawn.
But those concerns may also be abated by the ongoing influence of staunch E-Rate proponent and Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who has long argued for the program's potential to help close the "homework gap" in addition to simply expanding broadband access in schools.
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