E-Rate for the 21st Century: More Funding for Library Wi-Fi

The Digital DivideFor the last 17 years, the E-rate program has helped provide schools and libraries across the U.S. with subsidized Internet service.

With almost one-third of Americans still not connected to the Internet, there has been consistent demand for increased E-rate funding. For example, TechSoup's donor partner, Mobile Beacon, has an infographic on its homepage showing that nearly 50 percent of U.S. libraries still lack sufficient Internet access to meet their patrons' needs.

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) responded this July with an E-rate modernization plan to increase funding to libraries and schools for high-capacity Wi-Fi and broadband.

E-Rate Modernization: The Basics

E-rate is the commonly used name for the schools and libraries program of the Universal Service Fund.

The E-rate program has been chronically underfunded since its inception in 1997. Recently, the situation became critical because the program had insufficient funds to cover all requests for telecommunications and Internet services.

In July 2014, the FCC announced its E-rate modernization plan with three primary goals:

  1. Ensuring affordable access to high-speed broadband sufficient to support digital learning in schools and robust connectivity for all libraries
  2. Maximizing cost-effectiveness
  3. Streamlining the E-rate application process

The changes to the E-rate program are significant. They will affect the processes and administration of the program, and the time frame to implement the changes.

Another thing the E-rate modernization will do is encourage consortia of multiple libraries to form and apply together. Consortium applications are expected to get an additional discount.

The new E-Rate modernization order just ended its initial comment period.

How Much Funding and What For?

In the FCC official report on the rule making, the agency recognizes that Americans need to take advantage of high-speed Internet access, and that libraries must be able to provide that access:

"Access to high-speed broadband is crucial to improving educational experiences and expanding opportunities for all of our nation’s students, teachers, parents, and communities."

The report continues:

"High-speed broadband is also a critical component of 21st century libraries. In many communities, libraries are the only source of free, publicly available Internet access. As a result, high-speed broadband at libraries provides library patrons, many of whom have no other Internet access, the ability to participate in the digital world."

The E-rate modernization order sets an annual funding target of $1 billion in 2015 and 2016 for improving Wi-Fi while ensuring continuing support for broadband connectivity to schools and libraries.

The modernization plan is also designed to make E-rate administration and application processes faster, simpler, and more efficient by streamlining the process for multi-year applications and expediting the process for small-dollar applications. E-rate is also moving to electronic filing of all documents.

E-Rate Modernization Controversies

One disturbing thing that is under discussion is a proposal to fund broadband Internet in libraries based on square footage rather than number of patrons. This would provide less funding to physically smaller libraries.

This means that libraries with small buildings, but large populations would be severely underfunded. The remedy for this provision is for these libraries to join in a multiple library consortium and apply for E-rate jointly.

Another oddity is that VoIP phone services (Voice over Internet Protocol) costs may not be covered under the new system. Many organizations are moving to VoIP to cut phone costs.

Keeping Informed

Alisson Walsh at Mobile Beacon told me that she finds the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition to be very helpful in keeping up on E-rate modernization. The SHLB Coalition is an advocacy organization for schools, libraries, and healthcare providers to obtain affordable, high-speed, broadband Internet.

E-rate is a complex program, so Alisson uses multiple information sources. Here are some of her recommendations:

  • Every state has an E-rate coordinator. Contact yours to see what information and resources the coordinator can provide. Check to see if your state has an E-Rate Coalition and consider joining it.
  • Find E-rate updates directly from the FCC.
  • Not surprisingly, the American Library Association (ALA) is active in E-rate advocacy, so check its resources out.
  • The Benton Foundation is another useful information resource.

How to Take Advantage of the E-Rate Modernization Program

The Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC) is a nonprofit designated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as the administrator of universal services like E-rate, the Lifeline Program (discount phone service for low-income people), and the Rural Health Care Program.

It holds trainings, makes offers by telecommunications carriers available, and ensures program compliance. It already has a schedule of local applicant trainings, and the presentations are available as free downloads. The USAC also hosts an E-rate modernization resource center.

You can call USAC's customer service line at (888) 641-8722, or you can email customer support.

Tell us about your experience with E-rate in the comments.

Image 1: Digital Divide: Shutterstock; Image 2: Courtesy of Author; Image 3: Controversy / Shutterstock; Image 4-5: Courtesy of organizations.