The E-rate Program Today

A program that has already helped thousands of schools and how it can help your district.

GUEST COLUMN | by John Harrington

credit-fundsforlearning-annual-e-rate-cap-to-2016The federal E-rate program provides discounts on Internet access and Wi-Fi networks for K-12 schools and public libraries. Students and library patrons increasingly are dependent on high-speed internet access as more learning takes place online. Launched in 1998, the E-rate program was designed to get those connections in place; however, until recently the program had been consistently underfunded, and there was never enough money to meet the needs of schools and libraries. This changed when, in 2014, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to overhaul the program to better suit the needs of its constituents, including an increase in the financial support the program had to offer—an incredible milestone for the nation’s schools and libraries.

The 2017 E-rate funding cycle has begun, and looking ahead there are a few important things to consider.

In 2016, $3.93 billion* of support is available, and schools and libraries requested $3.60 billion in discounts. This is the second year in a row that the annual E-rate funding cap has been sufficient to fund all applications. With all of the budget uncertainties that many schools and libraries currently face, it is important that they can count on the E-rate program to help fund their Internet access and computer network infrastructure.

The 2016 annual E-rate funding cap exceeded requests in Category Two for on-campus networking (voice, video and data) and Category One (telecom and internet service to and between school buildings). View historical data in this graph.

Teachers and librarians count on having fast Internet connections available. On average, the annual student spend for telecommunications and internet access is $48. Not knowing if adequate internet capacity will be obtainable makes it difficult to plan its use effectively. But because the E-rate program is consistently meeting the needs of its constituents, schools and libraries are better able to plan. For the immediate future—at least through 2018—it’s expected that the program will have ample funds to meet the needs of applicants.

Last year, the E-rate program helped connect 53.6 million students to the Internet and provided discounts for Wi-Fi connections and high-speed data lines to 120,000 school buildings and more than 4,000 library systems nationwide. It has served communities in virtually every zip code in the United States. It is easy to get wrapped up in the technical components of the program, but in the end, we need to remember that it exists to positively impact millions of students as they gain the skills and knowledge to prepare them for life.

What Does the E-rate Support?

E-rate funds support the services that deliver high-speed internet access to school and library buildings. It also provides support for on-campus computer networks. In 2016–17, this equates to $4.9 billion in goods and services.

The top three service request categories include data and internet, voice service, and switches and routers. Together, they totaled more than $3.5 billion of the $4.9 billion* given in services (other service categories can be found here).

As part of the program’s reform, support for voice telephone services is being phased out. In 2016, applicants received 40 percent less support for their phone bills; in 2017, they will receive 60 percent less support; and, by 2019, support for telephone service is scheduled to be completely eliminated.

So, What’s Next?

As Internet connections in schools and libraries remain essential, the E-rate program will remain vital for those seeking connectivity around the country. The 2017 E-rate funding cycle has begun, and looking ahead there are a few important things to consider. The Universal Service Administrative Company is seeing a change in leadership as Mel Blackwell has retired and Craig Davis has taken his place. The impact of this choice may not be felt until later, but it will certainly impact the E-rate program for years to come. Secondly, with the 2016 presidential race looming, either candidate will be looking to make their mark on the FCC. Either way, there very well might be changes at the FCC in 2017 that lead to modifications to the E-rate program in 2018 or later.

The E-rate program exists to help schools and libraries get the connections they need. It is available to help students and library patrons get online, and many folks are invested in seeing the success of the program.

Ultimately, internet access is transforming our society. Schools and libraries cannot be excluded. The E-rate program reaffirms this mission, and Funds For Learning is proud to champion such efforts.

* To clarify, $3.93 billion is the amount of discounts that USAC has available for FY2016; $4.9 billion is the total amount of goods and services delivered to schools and libraries in 2016 (E-rate dollars plus individual school/library payments).

John Harrington is the CEO of Funds for Learning.

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