FCC approves move to revamp E-rate funding program

The Federal Communications Commission will be seeking comments from the public on the myriad issues revolving around E-rate, the government's 18-year-old subsidy program that brings Internet services to schools and libraries, following a Friday vote in favor of modernizing the program.

"Today, the Federal Communications Commission initiated a thorough review and modernization of the E-rate program built around three goals: increased broadband capacity, cost-effective purchasing, and streamlined program administration," the commission said in a statement.

Launched in 1997, E-rate has connected 97 percent of U.S. libraries and schools to the Internet, the FCC reports. But many need to update those connections to meet 2013 demands.

"According to a 2010 survey of E-rate applicants, half had slower connection speeds than the average American home and 39 percent cited cost of service as the greatest barrier to better meeting their needs," the FCC release said. "And according to a recent American Library Association survey, one quarter of libraries still have broadband speeds of 1.5 Mbps or less, and only 9 percent of libraries have speeds of 100 Mbps or greater."

Maine State Librarian Linda Lord said in her testimony before the Senate Commerce committee on Thursday that 77 percent of Americans surveyed consider these access services "very important."

"In Maine, the public library is the only place people can go for free Internet access in 77 percent of our communities. Nationwide, 62 percent of libraries report this is the case," Lord said. "When so much of what we do today is dependent on having a high-quality Internet connection, the library has become a lifeline. Our libraries could not provide this basic service without E-rate."

In schools, the rise of digital learning is changing the way kids learn, making faster Internet a necessity.

"The program should be aligned with today's technology," Margaret Spellings, former education secretary, told the Commerce panel on Friday.

How the program will be revamped remains to be seen. Commissioner Ajit Pai has warned against expanding E-rate, urging the FCC to focus on "efficiencies" instead, a Reuters story reports. Public comment could help guide the FCC in its rulemaking process. Goals in the current proposal include improving broadband capacity, improving the funds application and FCC review processes, and making cost effective purchases.

For more:
- Reuters has this story
- here's the FCC announcement
- Broadcasting & Cable has this article

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