Recently, the Federal Communications Commission adopted a wide range of changes to the E-Rate program. These changes are intended to streamline the application process and modernize the eligible projects for a program that distributes up to $2.25 billion a year to fund Internet service to schools and libraries.
The streamlining of the application process should make it easier for applicants to access E-Rate funds. Previously, to request funding, schools and libraries had to follow an application process that included a technology plan. The new rules eliminate the technology plan requirement for applicants seeking priority one services and simplifies the technology plan requirements for applicants seeking priority two services. The competitive bidding requirements for applicants, which have always been part of the process, have now been clarified. Finally, once an application is approved, the FCC will index E-Rate funding to inflation so that the purchasing power of E-Rate funds will not decline over time.
The programmatic changes reflect advances in technology that have brought faster Internet speeds. Initially, the FCC granted program participants greater access to fiber optic networks. The E-Rate program’s prior rules did not include access to dark fiber (i.e., unused optic fiber) on the eligible services list and did not provide support for the lease of fiber, whether lit or dark, as a priority one service. These limitations prevented participants from taking advantage of the most cost-effective forms of broadband service. Because today’s instructional technology requires greater bandwidth, applicants will now have the freedom to select from more options for broadband access from any entity, including both telecommunications carriers and non-telecommunications carriers. Additionally, the new rules expand eligible programs to include “School Spots” and digital textbooks. School Spots allow schools to provide Internet access to the local community after students go home. Digital textbooks will be funded through a pilot program established under the new rules.
School districts and libraries should reevaluate their use of the E-Rate program in light of the simpler application process and greater range of eligible projects. The changes may also influence how districts are involved in the program plan for the future.