Earlier this year, Arizona officials announced a plan they say could harness more than $100 million in federal funds to bring broadband internet connections to schools and libraries across the state.
Arizona’s unique geography, which ranges from mountains and rivers to steep canyons and sprawling deserts—makes wiring many of the rural parts of state for modern connections difficult and costly.
“We have three sort of major urban hubs here, and once you start getting out of those hubs, connectivity presents a huge issue,” says Arizona Department of Education spokesman Stefan Swiat. “If you’re a telecom company and you go out to a small community in the deserts of southern Arizona and there’s 100 people, you don’t want to install million-dollar fiber there, because you’re not going to get a return on your investment.”
But experts say changes made in 2014 to a federal funding provision known as the E-Rate program have dramatically helped matters in just a few short years. The program uses fees paid by telecom companies (and ultimately paid by consumers as part of their monthly bills) to help wire schools and libraries for phone and broadband service. In 2013, only 30% of school districts could offer internet connections at a federal target rate of 100 kilobits per second per student, while in early 2016, 77% of schools met that target, according to a January report from officials at the Federal Communications Commission.
“We’ve seen 30 million kids connected over the last three years who previously didn’t have sufficient connectivity in their classrooms,” says Evan Marwell, founder and CEO of EducationSuperHighway, a nonprofit focused on boosting school connectivity.
FCC chairman Ajit Pai, appointed in January to head the agency by President Trump, has generally spoken in favor of the E-Rate system. “Regarding E-rate, Chairman Pai strongly supports the program,” an FCC spokesman wrote in an email to Fast Company on April 24. But the FCC retracted the largely favorable January report shortly after Pai’s appointment, and it remains to be seen whether he will seek to make changes to the E-Rate rules approved under his Democratic predecessor, and what effects that may have on the program.
Getting Kids Connected
Officials behind the Arizona program plan to couple federal E-Rate money with money from the state’s own Universal Service Fund and the state budget to connect schools in far-flung corners of the state. Getting schools online enables teachers to use digital learning tools that have already become familiar in wired districts, like real-time online quizzes that can instantly show teachers which students are struggling with material, Marwell says.
“Suddenly they know a lot better about which of the kids are getting it and which of them aren’t getting it,” he says.
And broadband can also enable access to entirely new resources, like remote access to Advanced Placement courses and other options that often aren’t available in smaller schools.
“We’re going to have rural kids taking AP classes that they wouldn’t have been able to take because the school doesn’t have the resources,” Swiat predicts. “But now, nothing can stop them.”
Some schools in the state have already seen success from boosting internet access: When Yuma, in southwestern Arizona near the Mexican border, pushed to integrate broadband into the schools and distribute tablets to every student, students gained access to new educational opportunities. Swiat says one high school student was even awarded a full scholarship to the University of Arizona after winning a statewide science award.
“A couple of years ago, that kid had no chance,” he says. “And now, [she won] a full-ride opportunity to learn from great professors and pursue a passion that she discovered through broadband.”
The E-Rate program approved more than $1.6 billion for educational institutions, including including schools in almost 24,000 districts, for the 2016 funding year, according to a recent report from the Universal Service Administrative Co., which oversees the program. Its recent success stems at least in part from 2014 changes that shifted funding from voice to broadband and set the national 100 kilobit per student standard. In-school Wi-Fi programs also made it easier for districts to build their own broadband networks where no provider could offer affordable service, and boosted transparency to let districts comparison shop for broadband by seeing what other school systems.
“I think we’re making tremendous progress,” says Keith Krueger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking, a professional group of school tech professionals. “E-Rate is working for at-school broadband and Wi-Fi connections.”
The program provides funding to school districts via a need-based formula whereby schools can receive up to 80% of costs for approved expenses, determined by such factors as the percentage of students eligible for subsidized lunches. The program also provides additional matching of state grants up to an extra 10%, meaning some districts in participating states can see expenses fully covered, which can make a big difference for schools in particularly poor areas, according to Matt Gress. Gress is policy adviser to Andy Tobin, a member of the Arizona Corporation Commission, the state’s utility regulator.
An Uncertain Future
Whether E-Rate will continue in its current form under the Trump administration and the Republican-led FCC is still an open question. Some conservatives have spoken out against the E-Rate program altogether; a 2015 set of budget recommendations from the conservative Heritage Foundation advocated phasing out the program.
Historically, Pai has expressed support for ideas behind E-Rate. But in 2014, when he was an FCC commissioner in the Obama administration, he voted against the rule changes that focused E-Rate on broadband and Wi-Fi, which supporters have since said expanded access to more schools. Among other criticisms, Pai wrote in a 2014 statement that the changes didn’t do enough to reduce bureaucratic requirements that made it hard for rural schools to participate, and that the funding plan could lead to cost overruns.
“And it is devastating substance for America’s teachers, librarians, parents, students, and library patrons, many of whom I’ve met over the past several months, and all of whom believe, as I said almost one year ago, that ‘E-Rate is a program worth fighting for,’” he wrote. “After the band packs up and goes home, and after the happy headlines fade, they are the ones who will have to wait years more for 21st-century digital opportunities—for real E-Rate reform.”
Concerns that the program could be reshaped contributed to a push in Louisiana earlier this year to boost school broadband. Officials sought to apply for E-Rate funds to connect the state’s schools through the Louisiana Optical Network Initiative, which delivers high-speed broadband to the state’s universities.
“A lot of my folks were looking last fall, when the new federal administration was coming in—there was some indication they might change the rules,” says Joseph Rallo, the state’s commissioner of higher education. Rallo wanted to see how, with the help of E-Rate funds, the state university system and its fiber network could help get local schools online.
“We thought it an opportune time to see if we might partner with the K-12 [schools] and see what we could offer,” he says.
Eight of Louisiana’s 64 parishes, the equivalent of counties in other states, have no broadband access in their public schools, Rallo says. The tentative plan was for the state optical network to wire two locations as network hubs in each participating parish—such as a high school or a central library—and let local officials build their own networks from there. But with the idea only recently hatched, and some uncertainty about costs to finish wiring those local networks, only a handful of parish school boards joined the plan in time for the federal E-Rate deadline. That left the effort on hold for now, though officials may try again next year—depending on the state of the E-Rate program.
In the meantime, E-Rate supporters are doing what they can to make sure Pai—who has moved quickly to condemn other Obama-era FCC policies on net neutrality and broadband privacy—is aware of the benefits the current program has brought, says Krueger.
“We are doing everything we can to educate him and members of Congress that E-Rate works,” he says.