E-Rate Economic Jumper Cables Post CV-19 – My VantagePoint

As the nation grapples with the scourge and economic asteroid-like impact of CV-19, here is an idea I want to put out there to provide economic benefits across every congressional district in all 50 states, as well as improve Internet connectivity to all school districts in the country – including school from home for families with no broadband access.

Sound good? Let’s quickly discuss how we can apply some jumper cables.

First, the background. For many years the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has had in place a program called E-Rate.  The focus of the E-Rate program is to financially assist schools and libraries in the US in procuring improved networking technology to help keep them competitive with other countries and other school systems in connecting to and leveraging the Internet.

The program boils down to funding to cover a very meaningful percentage of the cost of acquiring new Wi-Fi access points and the associated Ethernet switching and software, including improved Internet access speeds and technology, etc. In simplified terms – it helps greatly improve in-school student access to the Internet. This also includes the cost of actually installing these solutions, which in the majority of cases is done by local technology value added resellers that live and work in the same community as the school systems.

Clearly in a nationwide cataclysmic situation that demonstrates more powerfully than ever the importance of Internet connectivity, and consistent with the need to apply some jumper cables to the economy,  below are suggestions to leverage the current E-Rate program’s already-established administrative mechanisms to improve Internet connectivity for schools that would also boost local economic activity.

The benefits of this proposal would:

  • accrue to local school systems and their students across the country by making improvements for broadband Internet access
  • would provide economic assistance to the local value added resellers that sell the equipment, installation, and IT management services to schools all across every congressional district across the entire United States
  • would provide economic assistance to the many US-based technology firms that build the Wi-Fi, fiber, and Ethernet equipment and software that would be utilized to improve the communications capabilities of qualifying school districts.

Here are the details of my high-level suggestions for simple modifications to the Eligible Services List for E-Rate Funding Appendix A that is controlled by the FCC:

  1. Have Congress allocate an additional $3B of funding directly into the E-Rate program from new economic stimulus legislation. These dollars would be administered by the current Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC); which is already in place for E-Rate.  Also, to make sure there is immediate effect, require that this money be spent over the next three-year period, beginning within six months. Likewise, any technology purchased, when possible, should be acquired from a US technology company.
  2. Modify the current discount levels to increase the funding to cover between 55% to 95%, depending upon percentage of students eligible for the National School Lunch Program; instead of the current 20% floor.
  3.  Permit and include off-campus student Internet connectivity (currently not considered as eligible entities under existing rules) for households close to or below the poverty level. This expands on an FCC order and will improve “school from home” Internet connectivity to help bridge the digital divide or the so called “homework gap” (see the interview on March 17th on The Verge between FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel and Nilay Patel).

The effects of this cash infusion jumper cable assistance along with the concomitant rules modifications to the FCC’s 2020 E-Rate Program for Schools and Libraries would touch every congressional district in the country. Local telecommunications services and their technicians would have more work, generating more local spending. Likewise, local technology value added resellers would also have more work and generate more revenue and again, would result in more local spending. School children with uncompetitive Internet access or none at all, would have access to cloud-based home Wi-Fi services to help bridge the digital divide when they need to do homework or when they must stay home due to a community health threat like CV-19. Teachers and students would have far better Wi-Fi coverage in schools with much better connectivity leveraging the latest in wireless technologies, including Wi-Fi 6 and the upcoming and groundbreaking Wi-Fi 6E.

My proposal is more expansive, simpler, yet fully consistent with the intentions of a letter dated March 17th, to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and the other FCC Commissioners from the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition (SHLB). Moreover, this economic jumper cable idea is also consistent with a letter dated March 22nd to the Honorable Mitch McConnell, signed by 19 U.S. Senators requesting that the E-Rate program receive $2B in incremental funding. Though this letter from 19 senators is well intentioned, it frankly misses important points on the clear and immediate economic benefits of their request while dwelling on the valuable objective of closing the homework gap. As outlined above, the immediate economic benefits to US-based technology, services, and telecommunications companies is a critical component of this type of economic disaster relief and stimulus program.

Finally, by leveraging a program and administrative model that is already in place under the current E-Rate program, this economic jump start could begin delivering benefits in months. This program modification could be a true win-win all across the country.

This blog was originally authored by Chief Technology Officer, Eric Broockman.

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