In testimony before a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) National Broadband Plan Workshop on education, Dr. Sheryl Abshire, on behalf of the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), highlighted the importance of the E-Rate program, which provides discounts for broadband and other telecommunications services to schools and libraries nationwide.
Dr. Abshire, who is the Immediate Past Chair of CoSN's Board of Directors and Chief Technology Officer (CTO) for Calcasieu Parish Public Schools in Lake Charles, LA, also recommended that the E-Rate program play a major role in the forthcoming national broadband plan. "When the E-Rate began, our connectivity consisted of a few dial-up connections in our school libraries," said Abshire. "Today, this has all changed. We now have over 20,000 computers connected to our network and, at any given moment, over 12,000 of them are accessing the network. Each day, our students, teachers and administrators make more than 5 million web page or network object requests, send or receive over 35,000 email messages, and transmit 18.5 gigabytes of data."
Abshire discussed how the program has provided more than $5 million in discounts to the district to significantly upgrade infrastructure; support phone, cellphone and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services; install and upgrade a high-speed network for the district's 60 schools; and expand bandwidth for IP video services. While the program has many benefits, Abshire also addressed reforms that should be made to enhance E-Rate's effectiveness, including raising the annual funding cap. Citing data that shows the imbalance between funding for Priority I and Priority II demands, Abshire stated, "If these current trends persist and there are fewer available unused funds in the system to roll over, the Commission and USAC may soon have to begin turning down 90% schools and libraries for internal connections. That is not enhancing broadband penetration, it is effectively stopping it."
She also recommended that the current program rules be amended to "allow community members to use E-Rate supported services for continuing education and similar purposes during non-school hours." According to Abshire, this change would allow districts to provide community classes for underprivileged and working poor families in need of basic technology proficiencies and allow schools to grant requests from community agencies to use training labs after hours.