FCC's E-rate program trading up to WiFi and a gig

7 July 2014 by Steve Blum
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By Jim Warner
Network engineer, U.C. Santa Cruz
Chair, Central Coast Broadband Consortium technical expert group

This is arguably a badly timed note about an FCC proposal due for decision on Friday, July 11. Any opportunity to comment – and have your comments count – ended months ago.

A year ago the commission put out a Notice of Proposed Rule Making that reviewed this history of changes to the E-rate program that provides about $2.3B/yr subsidies to educational uses of telecommunications services:

Click here for the NPRM

The big headline – when the rules come out – is that the FCC will be shifting the E-rate program to make Wi-Fi service ubiquitous in the nation’s schools. And press releases carrying that message have been put out starting on July 1. The reality is more complex than just funding a few cartons of 802.11 access points. Wi-Fi will be the user visible front face of the shiny new program. But under the hood, most of the money will go to provide back haul and switches to make the Wi-Fi do something useful.

President Obama proposed that schools should have 100 Mb/s for each increment of 1000 students. That should ratchet up to 1000 Mb/s in five years. Other proposers recommend 1000 Mb/s now with a 10 Gb/s target in 2017–8. Of course, this was a proposal a year ago. The recommendation could have shifted. The good news is that if the FCC makes any ruling on Friday, we will have K–12 and library standards for broadband services.

The E-rate program appears to be wildly successful. To be sure there have been isolated reports of fraud but in major part, the program is credited with propelling schools from dial-up to modern broadband. One thing that has not been proposed is to give the program more funding. The FCC believes that some reallocations and rule changes can provide a jolt both school and library broadband services. It is hard to believe in a zero sum world that the program can be adjusted to have major new impacts. In large part, E-rate support for libraries is an untouched project. There is lots of work to do. So, who are the losers?

The e-rate program of 1998 permitted schools to subscribe to pager service. And there is still $1M/yr being spend on them. A proposed change will reserve Priority E-rate funds for broadband services. So cell phones for staff will be on the out. Not clear how much is spent on this, but the rules still provide that schools can have subsidized subscriptions to e-mail services that most of us get now for free. Remember Compuserve? That will probably go away, too. There will also be rules changes that might have the effect of spreading the money more broadly than it is today. But that won’t, by itself, expand funding. Some tinkering with competitive bid rules have been proposed that could reduce paperwork burdens on small school districts. That could result in some real savings.

Other changes are in the wait til Friday category. The proposal last year asked whether it would be good to revise the rules to make it easier for school and library districts that want to build their own dark fiber networks to get more support. This would be excellent news for the recently funded Soledad fiber build in the Salinas Valley.