Broadband at Schools and Libraries: Insights from the FCC’s E-Rate Evaluation

by Tom Koutsky, Chief Policy Counsel, Connected Nation

A report by the Federal Communications Commission released this week highlights the challenges that our nation’s schools and libraries continue to face in delivering and utilizing advanced broadband services and technologies. The FCC surveyed 5,000 school and library recipients of its “E-Rate” funding, which annually provides over $2 billion in support, to analyze broadband adoption and utilization among E-Rate recipients.

Congress created the E-Rate program in 1996, with the express stated goal that that fund be utilized “to enhance . . . advanced telecommunications and information services for all public and nonprofit elementary and secondary school classrooms, health care providers, and libraries.”

More recently, the National Broadband Plan set goals of high-speed, gigabit connectivity for these and other community anchor institutions, so that they can fully integrate broadband-enabled applications and services into education curricula and programs.

So where are we in relation to these goals? Well, the report shows we have some work to do.
While the FCC report shows that most E-Rate recipients – 95%—have broadband connectivity to the Internet, they do so at relatively low levels of speed. For example, only 12% of schools reported average download speeds of greater than 10 Mbps, the level noted by the FCC as being needed to support high-quality TeleLearning. Indeed, 55% of the FCC survey respondents believe that the speed of their connection is too slow to meet their needs. This broadband gap is notable because the FCC survey also reveals that 61% of E-Rate funding goes to support traditional, dial-tone services—and not broadband.

At the same time, the survey shows some positive trends. For example, 56% of responding schools state that they expect to implement or expand the use of digital textbooks in the next two to three years, and 45% expect to implement or expand the use of handheld devices such as iPads for educational purposes.

More work and research is needed to truly understand and close these gaps in school and library connectivity, and Connected Nation programs are doing just that. As part of the NTIA State Broadband Data Development program, Connected Nation affiliates in ten states and Puerto Rico are working in partnership with state and local agencies, school districts, hospitals, and librarians to collect the first-ever comprehensive, address-level database of community anchor institution broadband connectivity. This information is being incorporated into our online broadband maps.

We are also collecting information on the technology used to connect these institutions to support the development of state broadband plans. For instance, our recent Iowa Broadband Planning Report observes that 23% of community anchor institution sites in the state are connected to a fiber optic network, a figure commensurate with the 21% of schools and 13% of libraries nationwide that responded to the FCC’s E-Rate survey.

Over time the community anchor institution information collected by Connected Nation will be able to track directly progress in meeting the goals of the National Broadband Plan and ensuring that all of these anchor institutions have full access to and fully use these transformative technologies like distance learning and electronic textbooks. With particular regard to the E-Rate community of schools and libraries, that information will show where outmoded licensing and reimbursement rules are stalling the use and diffusion of broadband technology.

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