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October 23, 2014

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FCC Approves E-Rate Plan to Inject $2 Billion into WiFi for Schools and Libraries

EH 140708 ERATE TWheeler FCC Approves E Rate Plan to Inject $2 Billion into WiFi for Schools and Libraries

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.

On July 11, the FCC voted to approve FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s revised order of WiFi financing reform through E-Rate—in a narrow 11th hour vote 3-2 amongst the committee members split along party lines.

The FCC’s July 11 press release reads as follows:

The order as passed maintains E-Rate’s current budget of $2.4 billion and makes available an additional $2 billion to support WiFi over the next two years. For the following three years, the program will target $1 billion annually to WiFi by phasing out support for nonbroadband services, such as pagers and phones, and increasing efficiencies. The plan is to increase WiFi funding by 75 percent for rural schools and 60 percent for urban schools over the next five years, delivering WiFi to an additional ten million students in 2015.

The order to modernize e-rate funding will inject, overall, $5 billion into the plan over the next five years toward putting WiFi into schools and libraries that will, according to the formal announcement on the FCC website, accomplish the following:

• Significantly expand funding for WiFi networks and distribute it fairly to all schools and libraries while recognizing the needs of the nation’s rural and poorest school districts.

• Maximize the cost-effectiveness of E-Rate spending through greater pricing transparency, encouraging consortia and bulk purchasing, and better enforcement of existing rules.

• Streamline and simplify the E-Rate application process and overall program administration.

The question of how much public libraries who are eligible for e-rate funding will receive for WiFi—as reported July 7 by SLJ—has been answered with this vote. (At least for the next two years.) Following the outpouring of protests filed on the FCC website by librarians across the country after learning the funding of WiFi for libraries was structured as $1 per square foot, the  amount was raised to $2.30 per square foot for the next two years—after which the FCC will vote again. (Schools will receive $1.50 per student for WiFi funding, versus the initial $1 per student proposed.)

The American Library Association (ALA) had been working with the FCC over providing recommendations regarding WiFi funding for public libraries, and ALA President Courtney Young underlined her support of the passage of the order in a statement following the vote:

“…More than a year of hard work and advocacy on behalf of our nation’s 16,400 public libraries and the communities they serve has brought us to this point, and I’m proud of what ALA and its library and school partners have achieved… We appreciate the opportunity to engage with FCC Commissioners and staff and are pleased they adopted many of ALA’s recommendations to make substantial improvements to the E-rate program.  We look forward to the next phase of the E-rate reform process to further address barriers to high-speed broadband access and ensure sufficient program funding to achieve our vision for digital inclusion and learning through libraries and schools.”

UPDATE (July 15):

According to a recent email blast, dated July 15, from the American Library Association’s (ALA) Washington office, the ALA is urging its members to contact their local U.S. representatives, because:

“Rumors are circulating around Capitol Hill this week of a possible amendment to the House Financial Services Appropriations bill that would limit the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) ability to increase funds to the Federal E-rate program.”

The vote on the amendment is reportedly rumored to take place in the next 24 to 72 hours. The ALA email goes on to say:

“If such an amendment were to pass and become law, it would be very damaging to the E-rate program. The E-rate program is part of the Universal Service Fund, which is overseen by the FCC. Through this program, libraries and schools receive discounts on telecommunications services including high capacity broadband. Many libraries count on these funds to provide internet services to their users.

You may also want to read:

The FCC To Vote on $5 Billion E-Rate Proposal, Librarians Are Speaking Out

Carolyn Sun About Carolyn Sun

Carolyn Sun (csun@mediasourceinc.com) is a news editor at School Library Journal. Find her on Twitter @CarolynSSun.

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