FCC's Wheeler to Issue Notice On E-Rate Revamp

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler said Wednesday he planned to issue a public notice on revamping the E-Rate program, including how to phase out low-band legacy service as the fund is migrated to a focus on high-speed connections.

An order would be targeted for the spring, he added.

Wheeler said there was no bigger priority for the commission than to insure schools and libraries got high-speed connections, and gave commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel credit for being a leading advocate for focusing the program on speed.

The E-Rate program is the portion of the Universal service Fund that subsidizes advanced telecommunications to schools and libraries.

In a speech at a Digital Learning Day event at the Library of Congress, Wheeler said that the revamp would focus on redirecting funds already in the program but said that "should it be necessary to increase the permanent funding levels for the E-Rate program, we will do what is appropriate."

But he sees plenty of opportunities through redirecting current funds, including improving the application process.

"The current E-Rate program is burdensome, slow, and not always focused on the right goals," he said. "As the managers of the program, the FCC must improve the speed and effectiveness with which E-Rate is run. We must cut through our own bureaucracy, listen to ideas from schools and libraries on how to streamline and improve the process, and find ways to update the management of the program."

Wheeler announced earlier this week his plan to double E-Rate spending—to $2 billion—on high-speed connections over the next two years.

Republicans in Congress have already been registering their concerns with the price of any E-rate 2.0 initiative.

Wheeler's speech followed one by President Obama Tuesday fleshing out some details of his expanded ConnectED initiative, of which the FCC's E-Rate revamp is a part.

Unlike the President, who emphasized schools—and took some grief from the American Library Association—Wheeler made sure libraries and librarians got plenty of attention. "The E-Rate is a program for schools and libraries,” he said, adding: “Or, let me put it another way: Libraries and schools."

Of the upcoming notice, Wheeler said that it would be "premature" to provide details but did say that "it is safe to assume there will be an emphasis on how to appropriately phase out legacy services, including low-bandwidth connections, and reprioritize on broadband. My goal is to have this process completed before students return to classrooms in the fall."

"When 80 percent of teachers and administrators in schools participating in the E-Rate program say they do not have the bandwidth necessary to meet their educational needs, we have a problem that must be fixed," he told the crowd, then put an even bigger exclamation point on it. "When roughly half the E-Rate schools access the Internet at speeds that are slower than what many Americans have in their homes—and try to serve hundreds of students (as opposed to the few users in any one home)—we have a crisis that undermines our nation’s future. We cannot–we will not–let those statistics continue," he said.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.