The White House’s announcement Thursday that it is urging the FCC to overhaul E-Rate—the program that provides discounted Internet access and telecommunications services to U.S. schools and libraries—is an important and nearly unprecedented step forward in closing the digital divide, the American Library Association tells School Library Journal. The ConnectEd initiative, as it is known, aims to fund access to broadband to nearly all students within the next five years.
“It’s the first time in a long time that that any interest in E-Rate specifically has come from the White House, and it’s all wrapped into education technology and student success, in and out of the classroom,” Marijke Visser, associate director of the ALA Program on Networks, tells SLJ. “So it’s a different focus than just the regular connectivity, which is really what E-Rate is all about. You need this kind of connectivity because you want to provide students with this ability…to do whatever they need to do, and not have the bandwith be the limiting factor. And I think that focus has now come to the fore.”
Maureen Sullivan, ALA president, agrees. “ALA is encouraged by President Obama’s announcement of the ConnectEd initiative to ensure that libraries and schools have access to robust, affordable high-capacity broadband for many years to come,” she said in a statement released Thursday. “As the digital revolution continues to unfold, libraries and schools will need substantially more powerful network capabilities. Inadequate bandwidth must not be the weak link in student success.”
Visser, who works closely with the FCC on E-Rate issues and policy, and Sullivan both note the importance of more funding for the program, which they say is dramatically oversubscribed.
“For 2013, there’s about $2.38 billion available in the fund—and schools and libraries have requested close to $5 billion. So you can see the discrepancy,” Visser tells SLJ.
Visser also notes, “The fact that the White House [recognized] that [E-Rate] is underfunded and that they’re looking for a way to infuse more money into the fund? That’s huge. That’s something that ALA has been talking about more or less from the beginning of the program [in 1996].”
Is the ALA confident that ConnectEd will finally meet the needs of U.S. schools and libraries? “We’re hopeful,” Visser says. “We were very pleased that the president actually said schools and libraries in his remarks. That’s a big plus for us, because within the E-Rate program, (school) libraries are pretty small fish; they don’t apply by themselves. They benefit because the school applies. So often with the FCC, the conversation starts with public libraries, and then we take the opportunity to talk about the good work and the relationship of the school library to the classroom setting.”
Visser also says she believes ConnectEd is on a fairly fast track. The ALA is expecting the FCC to issue a notice about the proposed new rules—which is the public forum portion of the process in which school and library stakeholders such as ALA; individual districts, schools and libraries; and even citizens are invited to comment and add questions to the public record—very soon, followed by a comment review and an eventual FCC order, Visser explains.
In the meantime, Visser’s policy team is continuing to work with ALA’s task force on E-Rate, helping to work through some issues and questions so they will be ready to add to the public discussion just as soon as the FCC calls for comment. “It’s an active process,” she says.
“I think everybody recognizes that students need this kind of connectivity and schools and libraries need it,” Visser adds. “So we’re in a good place to move forward. And it’s exciting to think about.”