Schools and libraries face a relentless scramble to keep up with internet bandwidth demands for their campuses. It not just fast internet connections they need, but also enterprise-grade Wi-Fi to provide students and library patrons with the bandwidth necessary for today’s web-based content and services.
Now in its 20th year, the Federal Communications Commission’s E-rate program has played a critical role in getting schools and libraries connected to the internet. Distinct from other funding sources, the E-rate program is a discount program that provides extra incentives for schools to make sure that every dollar is spent wisely on what is needed most.
As with any program involving federal funding, policy plays a crucial role in how, and for how long, those funds are administered. Fortunately for E-rate, the program shares bipartisan support in Congress; but it’s naturally facing questions under a new administration that has challenged the status quo on federal spending.
So far, signs of continued support for E-rate remain encouraging.
Just after his inauguration, President Trump designated Ajit Pai to serve as chairman of the FCC. Originally appointed as a commissioner during the Obama administration, Pai stated he would make the closing of the digital divide (aka homework gap) one of his top priorities. The FCC currently has three commissioners and Trump still needs to nominate one more Republican leader.
Chairman Pai has reiterated his support for E-rate, saying in a March 7 letter to the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation: “ …a more effective E-rate program, one that promotes better connectivity for students and library patrons alike, can be a powerful tool to help bridge that divide. E-rate is a key component of the Universal Service Fund and can help millions of children in America benefit from digital learning…”
Pai also said steps are needed to make it “easier for schools to apply for and obtain funding without having to fill out seven different series of forms and/or spend scare funds on…outside consultants.”
As we continue through 2017, the most important task applicants have to worry about right now is submitting the actual E-rate application.
The rules for 2017 are set and applications can now be submitted. Applicants should submit their funding requests as soon as they can because earlier E-rate submissions mean earlier funding opportunities, and that can bring a big relief to schools or libraries.
So far, here’s what we’ve seen in fiscal year 2017:
- During the first three weeks of the 2017 filing window, 2,807 applicants, representing schools, libraries and consortia in nearly every state and territory, submitted E-rate funding applications totaling more than $148 million.
- Many more applications and slightly more funding requests were submitted in the first three weeks of 2017 than was submitted during the opening three weeks of the 2016 filing window. (Over the same period a year ago, 687 applicants submitted $98 million in requests.)
- In 2016, there were 24,096 applicants who submitted requests totaling more than $3.6 billion. A similar number of applicants are expected to participate again this year, with more applications submitted near the filing window’s deadline of May 11.
Based on recent history, the future looks bright for the E-rate program. In 2015, the last completed year, more than $2.51 billion has been disbursed to schools and libraries.
The E-rate program plays an indispensable role in connecting our communities to the future. We expect that it will continue to evolve and change; and we are optimistic that the current administration will continue to uphold the principles of the E-rate program, making it accessible for all.
John Harrington is the CEO of Funds For Learning.