Actionable insights and a couple interesting revelations from a recent survey of over 1,000 applicants.

GUEST COLUMN | by John D. Harrington

Four years ago, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued a landmark order that reinvented the E-rate program, the federal program that gives schools and libraries discounts on their Internet service and connections. At the time, the E-rate program provided support for many telecommunications services—but few schools and libraries qualified for discounts on the actual wiring, switches, and wireless access points needed to bring Internet access to students and patrons.

The new rules sought to bring the program fully into the digital age by phasing out support for voice-related services. This allowed the program to reach all applicants with discounts on so-called “internal connections” (wiring, switches, access points), which are now called Category 2 services.

Because many of these new rules are set to expire after next year, the FCC will be considering what the program should look like going forward. This is a good time to examine what applicants think about the E-rate program and how well the program is meeting their connectivity needs.

We have been studying this issue closely through an annual survey that we conduct with E-rate applicants. Our latest survey, completed by more than 1,000 applicants, underscores the importance of the E-rate program: 88% of respondents indicated the program is “vital” to meeting their connectivity goals.

In fact…

  • 82% said the E-rate program is ensuring affordable access to high-speed broadband.
  • 80% said they have faster Internet speeds because of the E-rate program.
  • 78% said they connect more students and/or patrons to the Internet as a result of the E-rate program.

Despite these affirmations of the E-rate program’s success, the survey reveals key areas where the program can be improved.

The biggest concern among respondents is that the application process is still too complicated. But the survey also suggests that the cap on support for Category 2 services over a five-year period might not be sufficient to meet the demand. Just 16% of schools and 32% of libraries said their current E-rate funding is enough to satisfy their need for internal connections—and two-thirds of respondents said they’ll need to upgrade their Wi-Fi networks within the next three years.

Several applicants noted that the decision to phase out support for voice-related services has hit them hard financially. Although we can certainly sympathize with their situation, we believe it’s unlikely the FCC will reverse course on this decision. In effect, that ship has sailed.

However, we think there are some practical steps the agency can take to enhance the E-rate program, so that it meets its goal of bringing Internet connectivity to students and library patrons more effectively. Based on the results of our survey, here are three things we believe the FCC should do to strengthen the program for the future.

Let applicants share unused bandwidth with their communities.

Current E-rate rules prevent schools and libraries from sharing Internet access with families outside of their premises. But 82% of applicants agreed that insufficient access in the homes of students or library patrons is a “significant” problem—and 79% believe the E-rate program should let them share bandwidth with users off campus, provided this does not affect how much they request in E-rate support. Relaxing this rule could help extend broadband service into more homes and help close the digital divide, which is still a big issue in many communities.

Eliminate the site-based funding model for Category 2 services.

When the FCC transformed the E-rate program to focus it on broadband infrastructure needs, the agency shifted the program to a site-based funding model in which each school or library gets a certain amount for its wiring needs. But many applicants say this site-based approach isn’t meeting their needs effectively. Allowing for district-wide applications would make budgeting and applying for E-rate support much easier—while also giving school systems more flexibility in how they spend their E-rate dollars.

Find additional ways to streamline the program.

Only 29% of applicants said the E-rate portal is easy to use, and 44% characterized it as “difficult.” What’s more, 47% said their FY18 application took longer to file than in previous years. While that’s down from 57% in the 2016 fiscal year, it still leaves much room for improvement.

Our survey confirms that the E-rate program is critical in supporting the broadband needs of schools and libraries, and it offers valuable feedback that can improve the program going forward. We hope the FCC commissioners will weigh this advice from E-rate applicants as they consider how to lead the program into a new era.

John D. Harrington is the CEO of Funds For Learning LLC, a professional services firm that helps schools and libraries understand the E-rate, apply for discounts, and ensure compliance with program rules.