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Monday, March 18, 2013

New goals, new funding?

The Godfather of the E-Rate, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, made remarks about the E-Rate at the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation on March 12th.  It was nice to hear such positive words about the E-Rate, especially from the Senator who has the most influence over its future.

My favorite remark was an aside that is in the video, but not in the transcript.  Talking about how the E-Rate became legislation, Sen. Rockefeller said, "I thought it was a toy at first."  Kind of puts my career in perspective.

Apart from vague support, Sen. Rockefeller mentioned two specific initiatives, to which I will give shoot-from-the-hip response:
  1. "By the end of this decade, ... every school in America should have 1 Gigabit of connectivity.."  Well, my smallest client has 24 students.  They're a long way from needing 1 Gbps, but I suppose by the end of decade maybe they'll need it.  At the other end of the spectrum, the current guidelines for the PARCC assessment is 100 kbps per student.  So a district with 10,000 students will need 1 Gbps this time next year just so their kids can do online testing.  Still, not a bad benchmark, and the GAO is always saying the program needs some benchmarks.
  2. "[E]very school in America should be able to offer [wireless connectivity]."  Sorry, Sen. Rockefeller, I think wireless in schools would be nice, too, but the fund is several billion dollars short of being able to provide Priority Two funding for every school in the country.  And please, be careful how you talk about this.  The Senator mentions wireless in coffee shops as a model, so it's clear he's talking about wireless LANs, but the cell phone companies are going to see this as an opportunity to expand their $40/device/month cell-service-as-network model.  Here's what the Senator could do to help achieve his vision without spending more money: His vision is apparently the coffee shop model, which is BYOD ("BYOD" has displaced "1-to-1" as the most overused term in ed tech), so the Senator could help considerably by modifying CIPA legislation to clarify whether devices which are not school property, but are connected to a school network, need to be filtered.  Or exempt E-Rate from CIPA requirements, on the grounds that E-Rate funds are not actually government funds.
The New York Times published an article on the speech, and it has an interesting tidbit.  The Times reports that Sen. Rockefeller "hoped to gradually expand the amount of money devoted to E-Rate, providing for an additional $5 billion to $9 billion in total funds over the rest of the decade."  Let's see, we've got 7 years left in the decade, so that works out to around $700 million to $1.3 billion per year.  That would be a welcome addition, but it's still not going to pay for wireless access in every school.  I don't think it will even cover 1 Gbps connectivity for every school.

 Wait a minute, the Times says that the FCC "renamed the Universal Service Fund the Connect America fund."  What the fund?  I didn't get the memo about "Universal Service Fund" going the way of the dodo.  I thought CAF was just the new name for the High Cost Program.  The FCC overview on CAF does mention "transforming the existing USF into a new Connect America Fund (CAF)."  Time to go to the Connect America Fund & Intercarrier Compensation Reform Order (FCC 11-161).  Paragraph 115 says, "we establish the Connect America Fund to bring broadband to unserved areas; support advanced mobile voice and broadband networks in rural, insular and high-cost areas; expand fixed broadband and facilitate reform of the intercarrier compensation system. In establishing the CAF, we also set for the first time a firm and comprehensive budget for the high-cost program."  The Executive Summary says it even more clearly: "We create the Connect America Fund, which will ultimately replace all existing high-cost support mechanisms."

Is it a coincidence that they changed the name just a month after I pointed out that "The High Cost Program" was a terrible name for a government program?

At least the E-Rate is still safely in the USF.  I think.

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