Changes may be in store for the E-rate program — a possibility causing uncertainty for schools and libraries across the country — but Funds for Learning CEO John Harrington suspects it will be several years before the Federal Communications Commission launches any major reforms.
That’s welcome news for school and library systems, where demand for broadband internet access is “exploding.” The E-rate program remains a “primary source for funding to help them get those faster connections into their classrooms or their library facilities,” Harrington says in a recent interview with EdScoop.
Harrington, whose company helps hundreds of schools and libraries apply for internet and infrastructure funding through E-Rate, remains optimistic FCC Chairman Ajit Pai generally supports broadband access in the classroom.
The chairman’s decision in February, however, to reverse a program aimed at subsidizing broadband to low-income families has raised concerns about the FCC’s commitment to broadband funding of all kinds. Pai has also been critical of the Universal Service Administrative Company, which administers the E-rate program, which led to the recent resignation of USAC’s chief executive.
Nevertheless, schools and libraries in recent years have been applying for E-rate funding at increasing rates, Harrington says. He attributes that to the need for stronger, faster connections and newer technology.
“It’s a good problem to have, but it’s a serious problem,” he says. “The teachers, the students are beginning to embrace these technologies and all of a sudden they’ve got to get faster connections.”
In fact, schools and libraries across the country have embraced technologies to the point that the focus has shifted away from simply getting connected.
“For years we were talking about the need to get classrooms connected, to get those libraries connected,” Harrington says in the interview. “By and large, those connections are there. The challenge is now about capacity.”
Now that most schools and libraries have the foundational infrastructure to support high-speed internet in their facilities, the natural next step is to expand access and install newer, better systems. That can be costly, though, as new classroom technologies and solutions are released all the time, making recent updates seems slow and dated.
“You don’t have to look back too far to see that these things shift quickly,” he says, noting, for example, that when the E-rate program was implemented in 1997, “there wasn’t such a thing as Wi-Fi.”
Still, Harrington argues schools and libraries can’t let down their guard.
“It’s so important to let people know — let the FCC know, let representatives in Congress know — how important these funds are,” Harrington says.
“It’s vital that we give feedback to the FCC, let them know that this is not just something that is sort of on the side,” he adds. “The E-rate program, because it’s supporting these vital connections, is really front and center in almost every school district and every library system in the country.”
Wyatt Kash contributed to this report.