It is more than likely that many of you don’t know much, if anything, about the “E-Rate,” which is formally the Schools and Libraries Program of the Universal Service Fund administered under the auspices of the Federal Communications Commission. The E-Rate offers discounts for schools and libraries to get Internet access and telecommunications. This week, the FCC will vote on modernizing the E-Rate in a move that would first redirect a few billion dollars in E-Rate funds to the benefit of millions of students this year alone. In this post, Julius Genachowski and Jim Coulter explain why they think the FCC should approve the modernization. Genachowski is managing director of The Carlyle Group and former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. Jim Coulter is a commissioner of the bi-partisan Leading Education by Advancing Digital (LEAD) Commission, and co-founder and chief executive officer of TPG Holdings.
By Julius Genachowski and Jim Coulter
Amidst the onset of summer and the march of world events, we have quietly reached a watershed moment for technology in education—an opportunity to accelerate funding for widespread broadband Internet deployment in our schools. It is a moment that requires our national attention and bi-partisan support.
This important moment relates to “E-Rate,” a little-known but critical program under the auspices of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). E-Rate is an 18 year-old program originally designed to help schools and libraries pay for telecommunication services. Bipartisan support has emerged for a transformation of E-Rate to meet the needs of the Internet era by using it as a tool to support broadband Internet deployment in our schools. Debate remains, however, over when and how best to proceed with E-Rate reform. It is time to cut through the debate and act.
Later this week, the FCC will vote on a proposal to begin modernizing E-Rate. The proposal is a first step in this modernization, which redirects over $2 billion in existing E-Rate funds out of unnecessary reserves and into classroom Wi-Fi installations and upgrades. This first step would positively impact six million students in the coming year, and tens of millions more students in the years to come. Subsequent FCC steps would focus on additional broadband access over the following three years, requiring an additional $3 billion that can come from savings from further E-Rate modernization, such as improved purchasing practices, and phasing out spending on antiquated technologies like paging and landline phone service.
So why is this a watershed moment? The modernization of E-Rate, by bringing Wi-Fi enabled broadband Internet to our schools, creates the necessary backbone for the deployment of technology in education. We believe technology is the transformative lynchpin for moving the nation’s education system forward. For our teachers, Wi-Fi-enabled broadband Internet access in their classrooms in the early 21st century is the equivalent of heat and electricity at the beginning of the 20th century.
Together as FCC Chairman and a Commissioner of LEAD, we have for the past three years been working on how to accelerate the deployment of technology in education. Through that work, summarized in the LEAD Commission report issued in September 2013, we have come to strongly believe it is imperative to act as quickly as possible to arm teachers with appropriate 21st century tools, for several reasons:
First, the economics of education technology finally make sense. Five years ago, major investments in digital learning were prohibitively expensive with $1,000 workstations, shrink-wrapped mediocre software, and torn-up walls to wire school buildings. Today, the falling costs of laptops, tablets, and other digital learning devices, as well as innovative cloud-based software and enterprise Wi-Fi technology, make it affordable to bring the power of the Internet to every student.
Second, experience now shows that digital learning transforms education. When applied effectively, education technology personalizes learning and multiplies teachers’ impact. Online learning levels the playing field for rural communities and students otherwise lacking access to advanced or specialized classes. These changes make teaching more rewarding, learning more engaging, and increase parents’ ability to participate in their children’s education.
Third, as a nation, we cannot stand still. In the age of the Internet and a global economy, to stand still on technology adoption is unacceptable. The Internet has transformed virtually every sector of the U.S. economy. Yet in U.S. K-12 education, technology plays a minor role. This matters not only for the quality of U.S. education, but also for the state of U.S. competitiveness. South Korea has 100 percent of schools connected to the Internet, 100 percent of teachers trained in digital learning and is moving toward all digital textbooks by 2015. Now is the time for America to commit to global leadership in digital education.
As businessmen and believers in free markets, we believe the private sector can and must be heavily involved in bringing technology to our schools, but when it comes to education-related infrastructure, government has an important role to play. Our nation has a history of coming together to solve infrastructure problems—the Interstate highway system, the Tennessee Valley Authority, mobile spectrum—and E-rate gives us a tool to help solve this one. As President Obama has repeatedly said, in a country where we expect free Wi-Fi with our coffee, we should demand it in our schools.
The FCC has acknowledged that this week’s vote is just the first step in the process, but it is a critical beginning. Taking these initial steps to quickly put to work available funds is a common-sense path forward. It’s what any smart business in the same situation would do: seize opportunities to do more with available funding first, improve and upgrade operations, and then assess long-term needs.
Modernizing large government programs never comes easy. It requires compromise and change. But upgrading the infrastructure in America’s schools will lay the necessary foundation for digital learning to become a transformative reality for all our students, and foster America’s global competitiveness as today’s students become tomorrow’s leaders and innovators. We urge the FCC to seize this opportunity.