This is a four-part blog series about Alaska’s unique relationship with the E-Rate program.
The digital landscape for Alaska provides challenges and opportunities for its education institutions. I have the distinct privilege and honor to work first-hand with schools and libraries across the state. My background in education, coupled with my telecom experience provides me with a unique perspective on this topic. According to the Alaska Broadband Task Force report, dated August 2013, over 21,000 households in Alaska do not have broadband. And more than half of the nation’s anchor tenant institutions (hospitals, schools, libraries) that are listed as having insufficient broadband capabilities are in Alaska. In addition, the report states that 60% of rural community members choose to access the Internet from other areas in the community because the Internet they subscribe to at home is too slow. Despite digital inequity, schools and libraries have proved to be leaders in the use of technology to advance students and citizens in rural Alaska.
Our schools and libraries are equipped with video conferencing and wireless infrastructure. Alaska’s schools were one of the first to adopt one-to-one laptop programs and have since implemented one-to-one with tablet devices. However, an investment in technology without access to the Internet no longer meets the needs for library patrons or students. Over the years, schools and libraries in rural Alaska, as well as other rural areas in America, have fallen behind in matching the growing demand for devices, applications, and cloud-based solutions with adequate bandwidth. Software applications, including video, have evolved from being server- or CD-based to being cloud-based.
E-Rate is one of the four categories of funding sources made possible through the Universal Service Fund (USF), administered by the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC) under the direction of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). E-Rate was authorized as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, with the foundational principle that “EVERYONE” should have access to affordable telecommunications regardless of their zip code. The idea was that everyone would pay a small fee on their phone bills to assist those living in rural/remote areas where costs were significantly higher than urban areas. Schools and libraries are eligible for discounts ranging from 20% to 90% of costs for telecommunication and Internet services depending on poverty as assessed through free and reduced lunch programs. The cap for the program is set at $2.25 billion per year, though current demand is three times that amount.
Today, the E-Rate program is receiving a lot of attention because of the demand, the move to online assessments, more complex applications, additional devices, and cloud services. The FCC is in the process of creating E-Rate 2.0 and the news of E-Rate reform has also prompted President Obama to push for a 99 in 5 campaign to insure 99% of the students across America have high-speed broadband within the next 5 years.
The conversations, actions, and prospects of E-Rate 2.0 are critical to Alaskan education. Per FCC Commissioner Rosenworcel’s comments, the majority of schools and libraries in America today do not have adequate bandwidth to meet the needs of students and patrons. This is an ongoing conversation in Alaska as well. Even with 90% E-Rate subsidies, most schools and libraries in Alaska do not have adequate bandwidth.