E-rate Survey Highlights Need for Updates

(Image credit: Mohamed Hassan from Pixabay)

E-rate needs to be expanded to provide cybersecurity funding and at-home internet access for students, say early respondents to Funds for Learning’s annual E-rate survey

The FCC’s E-rate program provides discounts of between 20 and 90 percent for broadband access for schools and libraries. It’s importance has been highlighted over the past year as the pandemic has reshaped where and how students learn. 

So far, twice as many people have responded to the survey as last year, says John Harrington, CEO of Funds for Learning, an E-rate compliance firm. Last year about 10 percent of the approximately 21,000 E-rate applicants in the country responded. 

“It shows the significance of the weight of the discussion, it’s front and center on everyone’s mind,” he says. “The early results are consistent with what we saw last year and that is the homework gap is a significant issue in essentially every community. Having students connected wherever they’re at is absolutely critical.” 

The survey closes on May 15 and will be submitted to the FCC in June. Harrington says that it gives FCC officials an idea of what those on the ground are experiencing, and has helped facilitate past updates to the program. 

E-rate Needs to Cover Cybersecurity 

Last year, the FBI reported that more than 1,600 schools were the victims of cyberattacks, a significant increase from previous years. Right now, the E-rate program does not help education institutions pay for cybersecurity, which is something school administrators across the country want to see changed as soon as possible. 

“Security is by far the number one issue because if you don’t have that, it doesn’t matter if you’ve got more devices for students,” Harrington says. “You cannot operate a school network without cybersecurity, and the E-rate program today does not provide support for that. It’s like funding a housing program, but we won’t pay to put locks and windows on the housing.”  

Extending Connectivity Off Campus  

Beyond helping pay to secure their systems, educators want to be able to use the E-rate discount to help provide internet access beyond the school or library grounds as they attempt to close the homework gap. 

“One of the strengths of the E-rate program was that when it was created, it was created with the idea of connecting students,” Harrington says. “One of the biggest weaknesses is they drew a line around it, called property lines, which made sense 25 years ago to a certain degree but certainly doesn’t make sense today. That’s what schools and libraries are clamoring for, ‘Hey, give us the support that we need and let us have the freedom to deploy those resources where they’re needed most.’ A lot of that’s on campus, but also some of that’s off campus.” 

Future of E-Rate  

The U.S. school system will see historic funding in the coming year but Harrington says as the E-rate discount is reformed the focus should be on sustainable funding rather than funding for one-time programs. 

“The pandemic did not create the digital divide but it has shone a light on it,” Harrington says. “I’m grateful that there’s higher awareness, that there’s more discussions around this topic. Now it’s up to us as communities -- at the federal, state, and local levels -- to lock arms and address this issue.” 

While there are societal problems without existing solutions, internet connectivity shouldn’t be one of those. “We need to deal with this,” Harrington says. “It’s not rocket science or cancer that we’re trying to solve here. It’s getting connected devices into the hands of students and teachers. Let’s just put our heads together and figure out a way to do it.” 

Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is a Tech & Learning contributor. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.