FCC's Wheeler: E-Rate reforms should address 'closing the rural fiber gap'

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler told attendees during an education event in Washington, D.C., that more schools and libraries, particularly those in rural areas, need access to more fiber-based network facilities.

Speaking during the 2014 Educational Technology Summit, Wheeler said that the next steps in modernizing the E-rate program should focus on two main objectives: closing the rural fiber gap for schools and libraries and tackling the affordability challenge.

"The FCC estimates that 40% of schools in rural areas lack access to fiber networks," Wheeler said in prepared remarks. "And of those that could access fiber, only about a third do so, principally because of high costs. The net result is shocking: 75% of rural public schools today are unable to achieve the high-speed connectivity goals we have set."

He said that the FCC should be able to address the lack of available fiber in rural schools and libraries via the existing E-rate structure.

"Attacking the Rural Fiber Gap using the E-rate program can be accomplished within the confines of the current E-rate structure by considering rules to provide better incentives for buildout in areas with high upfront costs," said Wheeler. "Our rules already cover the costs of special construction charges to pay for new infrastructure, but there may be ways to adjust those rules that make it more likely that school districts and libraries will receive bids to build in areas where they currently have no high-speed options."

Price continues to be a challenge for small schools trying to get higher speed fiber-based connectivity.

During a visit he made to South Dakota, Wheeler noted that a small rural school's local provider required $6,000 a month for a fiber-based broadband connection, but that same circuit was available for only $2,500 from a competitive provider, for example.

He said that "with one phone call the school was able to reduce its costs by 66%," adding that "under our rules it shouldn't have had to make that call in the first place."

His speech comes after the FCC made changes to the E-rate program in July. A big piece of his proposal was to allocate $1 billion to improve broadband and Wi-Fi connectivity for schools and libraries.

Wheeler's FCC colleagues agreed to make more money available for Wi-Fi, as he proposed in July, but only if the money isn't needed for basic Internet connections.

Wheeler said that while making more money available for Wi-Fi is compelling, increasing the availability of fiber-based broadband should be the next step. 

"But for all our progress, our work to transition E-rate away from 20th century technologies to enable the support of 21st connectivity is not over," Wheeler said. "We have updated the program to close the Wi-Fi gap. Next, we must close the Rural Fiber Gap."

E-rate is just one tool that the FCC has in its arsenal to address the lack of fiber in rural schools and libraries. Local service providers could potentially help bring fiber to underserved and unserved school districts by using Connect America Funds (CAF).

The FCC is now in the process of working through finalizing the second phase of the Connect America Fund.

"But closing the rural school and library connectivity gap need not be limited to the E-rate program," said Wheeler. "In 2011, the FCC created the Connect America Fund to support high-speed broadband deployment in unserved areas; the success of that program should also be judged by how it solves the Rural Fiber Gap for rural schools and libraries."

For more:
- see Wheeler's speech

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