FCC's E-Rate proposal aims to close the Wi-Fi gap in US schools and libraries

A new proposal from the FCC would allocate billions of E-Rate dollars to install Wi-Fi networks in every school and library in the US.


Last week, I filed my column from an island on the Penobscot Bay in Maine. The region is well-regarded for its seafood, granite shores, wild blueberries, and hardy people.

When I first traveled up to Maine with my parents as a boy, more than three decades ago, the turn-of-the-century wooden cottage we rented had just gotten indoor plumbing and been wired for electricity. There was no television, only an FM/AM radio with a weather band. The stove, water heater, and small refrigerator all ran on propane. A recently added rotary phone line provided the only connection with the mainland, family, and friends.

Even with those relatively modern amenities, the uninsulated summer cottage remains connected to its turn-of-the-century origins as a quiet, simple escape for rusticators seeking relief from the summertime heat in the sweltering, smelly American cities of the early 20th century, long before air conditioners made living in the humid neighborhoods in Philadelphia, Baltimore, or Washington DC bearable. Hundreds of books, from novels to histories, sit on shelves on the open framing of the interior walls, offering entertainment and edification to curious minds. Oil lamps, chimneys, and lanterns gather dust on the mantle and atop cupboards, ready to be pressed into use if the power goes out.

Barred Island in Maine
Image: Alex Howard

Today, the rough hewn beams of the structure still bear the marks of hand tools, not the sharp, perfect edges of wood finished by a modern sawmill, but the rest of the cottage has been renovated in both small and significant ways. While there is still no television, the gas appliances have been replaced by an electric stove and refrigerator. A microwave sits next to a toaster, CD player, and a coffee maker, although running all three at once is too much for the circuit. Perhaps most significantly, a DSL router that was installed on that phone line in 2012 distributes a Wi-Fi signal throughout the cottage, connecting occupants with wireless devices to the internet and with it people, information, and entertainment.

My uncle, wife, and I were pleased: we've all finagled ways to work remotely from the island over the years, figuring that doing so beat an office in the mid-Atlantic. A wireless broadband connection meant that we didn't have to drive to a nearby public library or try to work through dial-up, the story of the last decade, or share a narrow data connection through a MiFi card or a tethered smartphone weakly connected to a faraway wireless tower. Work aside, fast online access meant that instead of calling into recordings or waiting for weather radio broadcast, we could quickly check Red Tide warnings, check the progress of weather systems, pull up ferry schedules, research local hikes, save topographic maps to our devices, research recipes, and even livestream the thrilling World Cup match of US vs. Portugal.

Not everyone in my family was thrilled about the addition of online access. My parents and some other relatives make the long drive up to Maine to escape from the pace, pressure, and negative aspects of modernity. Their desire and preference has been to disconnect, and focus upon being fully present together, alive and awake to the wildlife that swims, flies, scurries, and flutters around the cottage at all hours, immersed in a great book, focused on good cooking, or engaged in quiet conversation. This year, I saw some of their concerns about 24/7 connectivity realized, as the devices that connected us to information often seemed to leave us sitting "alone together," not closer.

On balance, the benefits of connectivity when we needed it in Maine were clear, given the immense utility it provides, but there were also trade-offs. Like other Americans, we generally have expressed a positive attitude towards technological progress, including its impact on the future. As ever, I was aware that online access and the digital literacy to make use of it are privileges, along with the ability to travel, take vacation, and choose to disconnect. While I still place higher priority on safety, shelter, water, and electricity, broadband internet access is so useful that to be without it in the 21st century is to be at a disadvantage.

Why some Americans aren't using the internet

That's not a view shared by all of the remaining 15% of American adults who are still offline, as a May 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project found: 21% are just not interested. The rest, however, don't have a computer, don't have access, don't have money to buy either, or the skills to make the most of it.

Image: Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project

If American adults and their families aren't getting online, from seniors who lag in tech adoption to children who will need to be digitally literate, local, state, and federal governments are failing to serve the public. As with past surveys from Pew, the most recent numbers continue to find that internet use "remains strongly correlated with age, educational attainment, and household income."

According to Marijke Visser, assistant director of the Office for Information Technology Policy at the American Library Association (ALA), virtually all libraries in the US now offer Wi-Fi as a core service. She said that in 60% of communities in the US, libraries offer the only public Wi-Fi available.

"Over 32 million people use library technology services to achieve their goals," said Visser, who touted the role of libraries in supporting innovation and entrepreneurship, and noted that over 95% of libraries offer access to online government services and healthcare services. For instance, she noted that a family in Alaska received more than six hours of medical training over a video conference for a child with diabetes.

The FCC's plan to modernize E-Rate and close the Wi-Fi gap

Visser provided this context on a press call convened by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on July 1, 2014. The focus of the call was a new proposal to modernize E-Rate to provide Wi-Fi to schools and libraries across the country that will be voted upon in next week's open meeting in DC.

E-Rate is the shorthand used for the Schools and Libraries program of the Universal Service Fund (USF) administered by the FCC, which provides discounted telecommunications services, internet access, and internal connections to schools and libraries. The program, which was mandated by Congress in 1996, is funded by the USF, which originally began as a means of subsidizing telephone services for low-income households and high-cost areas through assessing telecommunications carriers.

When E-Rate funds began to be applied in 1997, approximately 14% of K-12 classrooms in the US had access to the internet; today, almost all schools and libraries are connected to the internet. In 2014, however, tens of millions of students and library visitors are creating an increasing demand for bandwidth and wireless network capacity. According to an FCC survey of E-Rate recipients, "nearly half of respondents reported lower speed internet connectivity than the average American home -- despite having, on average, 200 times as many users."

Image: ALA

When the E-Rate rules were written two decades ago, most students went online in the computer lab, said Jon Wilkins, managing director of the FCC, in the July 1, 2014 press call; today, they're bringing laptops and tablets to school. Wilkins said that the FCC's data showed the agency that closing a "Wi-Fi gap" at schools and libraries is perhaps the most immediate of the needs of E-Rate recipients. Accordingly, the FCC has proposed spending an additional one billion dollars this year and another billion next year, on top of the estimated $2.4B in existing E-Rate spending, to put Wi-Fi networks into schools and libraries.

"The proposal would also close the gap for Wi-Fi support that currently exists in the program -- a change that would enable an additional 6 million children, disproportionately in rural areas, to access Wi-Fi and the 21st Century educational tools it enables during the 2015 funding year," wrote FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, in a blog post.

"One of the key benefits of the E-rate order under consideration is that it will significantly expand access to Wi-Fi funding available for rural areas like Cibola County. Historically urban areas have received nearly 60% of internal connections support despite serving under 30% of all students, while rural applicants are crowded out. With improved rules, over the next 5 years Wi-Fi funding for rural schools would be increased by 75%. Urban schools will also do better, seeing an increase in support of 60%."

In the call, Wilkinson said that the proposal would lead to up to 44 million additional students gaining access to Wi-Fi at school by 2019, or "essentially, all students in the country."

In the figure above, I've graphed the states that would see the largest increases in funding, based upon the data the FCC provided.

The need to improve the infrastructure in rural states like Maine is clear. The best policies to get there, however, are less so. The FCC's proposal for E-Rate reform has come under criticism from rural education groups, which raised concerns about sustainability and how funds will be allotted in a letter to the FCC. Specifically, they are worried about allocating funds on a per-pupil basis, not based on need, and based upon district-level poverty, as opposed to school-level poverty.

"Without change to the way that Wi-Fi is funded, very few schools and libraries will get Wi-Fi at all," said Mark Wigfield, deputy director of the Office of Media Relations in the FCC, when asked about these concerns. "Last year, there were none."

Wigfield, in an emailed statement, said that at best about 10% of schools and 1% of libraries have received E-Rate support for in-school networks like Wi-Fi.

"The reason this has happened is there is no budget for each individual allocation to a school, and no certainty about when the funding will be available program wide for these services at all," he said. "So, the schools will go for the highest possible level of funding, with the schools with the highest poverty level being at the front of the line, and they consume all the funding.

The proposal is to put a common-sense budget on allocations to schools -- essentially a per-pupil figure based on the actual experience of schools that have installed Wi-Fi, and modeling of the costs. And, by guaranteeing $1 billion a year for 5 years - the replacement cycle for Wi-Fi networks, funding will be adequate. So ALL schools and libraries will get funding, not just 10% of schools and 1% of libraries. The cost of installing Wi-Fi inside a building doesn't vary much around the country, so the benchmarks we are proposing should be more than adequate."

Wigfield put specific emphasis on the point that poverty-based funding remains.

"Subsidies increase as the percentage of students that get free and reduced price lunches increases [on] a poverty-based sliding scale" he said. "The plan still gives priority to poor school districts, and the public libraries located in those districts. The maximum subsidy would be reduced from 90% to 80% -- but it's important that districts have 'skin in the game' to make sure the investments are an important priority, and there is a funding 'floor' that guarantees an adequate level of funding for the smallest schools and libraries."

Evan Marwell, the CEO and founder of Education Superhighway, said the nonprofit's analysis of the proposed increase in FCC E-Rate spending would be enough to upgrade every school and library, essentially doubling the country's investment in broadband on an annual basis.

When I asked about the underlying data for that analysis, Marwell said that it's based upon an estimated $800 million dollars of annual spending, representing the total cost of an upgrade: a wireless access point, switches, wiring, fiber, installation costs, and patching -- "the kitchen sink of what you need."

Unlike other telecom, Wi-Fi is pretty standard in costs, said Wilkins, in answer to my question about the costs of upgrades. He asserted that the agency is "doing a ton of engagement" and just asking what schools and libraries spend.

"Some schools and libraries have built pretty good networks," he noted, and said the FCC found a near-consensus that a reasonable budget ceiling for the cost of upgrades existed. Pressed for more specifics, Wilkins said that the amount of money it takes for a classroom to be upgraded is $2,200-2,500, with approximately $150 per student required "to build a robust Wi-Fi network" with "sufficient coverage to allow 1:1 learning" that will have a useful life of five years.

Installing Wi-Fi is just one side of upgrading access, though, as any network admin knows. A classroom or reading room full of mobile devices is going to put more demand on an institution's bandwidth.

When I asked about the average bandwidth use by schools and libraries, and data on change in demand, Wilkins said that 800,000 tests of broadband speeds at 35,000 schools across the nation found that only 37% of schools actually have sufficient broadband to meet the digital learning standards of 100 kilobits per second (Kbps) per student recommended by the State Educational Technology Directors Association, and only 1% of the goal set in the ConnectEd Initiative for 1 megabit per student (<bps) by 2018, with 20-40 total Mbps available total to the average school.

The cost of Wi-Fi upgrades in libraries is based upon the square footage of the buildings, but Visser said that costs of upgrades in them is comparable to that of schools. According to the ALA's data, the majority of American libraries have 10 Mbps or less of total bandwidth, and about 5% of US libraries have 100 Mbps or greater.

While it's not clear what the FCC's master plan is to increase or sustain increases in the total bandwidth available to each school and library will be, presumably other E-Rate funding will be applied to increasing it, along with state and local resources.

In a blog post, Gigi B. Sohn, FCC special counsel for external affairs, and Patrick Halley, associate chief of the FCC's Wireline Competition Bureau, floated two other potential approaches to the issue. First, the E-Rate modernization proposal that will be voted upon would add more (welcome!) transparency to the cost of the products and services that schools and libraries are purchasing with E-Rate dollars.

...we agree that broadband infrastructure TO the building remains a challenge for many schools, and far too many libraries. The Chairman believes this can be addressed by taking steps to improve the fairness of this part of the program as well. For example, where price is a barrier to that infrastructure, this proposal would require far greater transparency in what is being purchased with E-rate dollars. This would allow applicants to see what others are paying for similar services. This is particularly helpful in rural areas where there is often less competition at the local level. Having the knowledge that providers in other similarly rural parts of the country are offering the same service at far lower rates should help rural schools and libraries negotiate lower prices.

According to Wilkins, the FCC is "now working through major upgrades to the IT platform" the FCC uses for E-Rate with the "fundamental goal" of creating a list of the prices being paid by individual schools and libraries. As he noted, that would in of itself be a major step forward.

The other approach in the proposal floated by the FCC would be to remove the competitive bidding process for schools and libraries purchasing 100 Mbps internet access when they purchase commercially available service below a certain price.

This improvement would make the rules fairer by allowing low dollar purchasers, such as smaller schools and libraries, many of which are not fortunate enough to participate in larger district or consortium purchasing groups, to get the benefit of commercial pricing without the administrative overhead of a full competitive bidding process.

Public libraries and schools are crucial hubs for connectivity for the old, young, poor, and disabled to be full participants in today's increasingly competitive economy, to access government services on an equal basis, and to participate in digital democracy experiments. The services offered by libraries are expanding, as Americans continue to strongly value the roles libraries play in their communities. The bandwidth requirements of schools are exploding and will only grow in the years ahead, as more students are connected to information and one another through mobile devices.

Here's hoping all of the stakeholders involved can work together to get everyone who wants and needs to get connected online, soon.

Editor's note: Additional statements from the FCC were added after initial publication.

By Alex Howard

Alex Howard writes about how shifts in technology are changing government and society. A former fellow at Harvard and Columbia, he is the founder of "E Pluribus Unum," a blog focused on open government and technology.