Category Archives: E-Rate

Don’t Overlook Alaska in E-Rate Reform

I had the recent opportunity to hear about the results of EducationSuperHighway’s analysis of E-Rate spending at the FCC’s E-Rate Workshop last month. EducationSuperHighway’s findings demonstrate how Alaska remains an outlier that warrants special considerations when it comes to E-Rate reform. Below, I compare EducationSuperHighway’s insights with the reality in Alaska:

Insight 1: We face an urgent challenge to ensure that our students do not fall further behind

EducationSuperHighway notes that 40 million students lack adequate access to high-speed broadband, and that poor and rural districts were more likely to fall in this category. This is indeed true for Alaska. 79% of the districts I work with do not meet today’s connectivity standards.

Insight 2: Schools are not meeting the ConnectED goals because high-speed broadband is not affordable

This is certainly true for Alaska. Schools that have more money/students and are closer to connectivity sources are the ones that are meeting the ConnectED goals, leaving behind those poorer, smaller populated, rural schools – like those in Alaska. Indeed, the most isolated schools are often the most expensive to serve.

Insight 3: Schools that are able to afford high-speed broadband provide an actionable roadmap to enable every school to meet the ConnectED goals

The actionable roadmap suggested by EducationSuperHighway – migrating to fiber, purchasing to scale, taking advantage of competition and taking location initiative – admittedly disregards the smallest schools and underestimates the cost of migrating to fiber in remote, rural communities. Rural Alaskan schools are hundreds of miles from the connectivity source with little hope of a real fiber solution in the foreseeable future due to the climate, terrain, permitting and rights of way issues, and the dearth of roads. Satellite and microwave middle-mile solutions are expensive to deploy and maintain in remote Alaska. Thus, rural Alaskan schools cannot expect middle-mile solutions at urban fiber rates and will continue to rely on significant E-Rate support to educate our children. No amount of competition or large-scale purchases can change that reality. The unaffordability exists even when school districts come together to aggregate purchasing power and in competitive environments, which they frequently do.

Insight 4: 96% of schools could meet today’s internet access and WAN standards if the FCC focused the E-rate program on broadband, but meeting the five-year ConnectED goals will likely require a combination of lower prices and more resources

We wholeheartedly agree with this insight. But what about the 4% that can’t meet today’s Internet access and WAN standards, let alone the ConnectED goals? Those are the schools in remote, rural Alaska that I’ve been referring to. As the FCC considers E-Rate reform this summer, they must not forget this 4%, for whom Internet connections at school are often the best connection available in their communities.

To ensure that these remote, rural communities continue to get the available connectivity that they need, the FCC must prioritizing some funding requests over others. My employer, General Communications, Inc. (GCI), has proposed an E-Rate “Priority 0” that would help guarantee E-Rate support for connectivity to rural-remote communities in Alaska and the lower 48 before Priority 1/2 funding is disbursed. Rural-remote school districts spend more on transport, because they are the furthest away from Tier 1 Internet POPs. This high-cost service does not exist for most urban and suburban schools and libraries. As previously noted, rural communities disproportionately lack adequate Internet connectivity and need more support for middle-mile infrastructure to remote locations, not less. Establishing Priority 0 support for distant connections from a rural community to the Internet will help to ensure that these communities are not disproportionately affected by a revision or elimination of the Priority categories or the distance component of the per-student/patron cap, therefore reducing the anti-rural nature of some E-Rate reform proposals.

We urge the FCC to continue the current E-Rate program in Alaska, in addition to creating financial opportunity for build-out of terrestrial infrastructure for Alaska.

Are your school’s needs being met through E-Rate? Please share in the comments. You can also chat with me on Twitter at @plloyd.

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Washington Ed Tech Summit Recap

I had the opportunity to attend the Washington Ed Tech Summit in Washington DC last month to discuss and hear about ed tech policy trends, including the latest developments in the E-rate program. The summit featured speakers focused on policy under consideration in Washington and the specific impact of these policy trends on the schools and districts in individual states. There were two speeches that were interesting to me as I think about the implications for children in Alaska. I’ve highlighted a few key takeaways below.

ConnectEDucator

David Edelman, senior advisor for Internet, Innovation & Privacy, NEC and OSTP at The White House, and Doug Levin, executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA), shared a program called ConnectEDucator, focused on professional development that is being introduced by the White House administration and is currently in the budget process to be funded for FY 2015. The program would essentially help educators leverage technology and data to personalize learning and improve instruction, and offer two things:

  1. Primarily, the initiative would offer competitive three year grants from the federal government for school districts to support professional development to improve student achievement through technology
  2. A smaller component, would be to support formula grants to enhance and grow ed tech capacity

This program is still in process, and how districts could apply is unclear. Ensuring the process didn’t negate rural schools and districts from applying was a hot topic. The grant could be used for open digital content delivery, tools including assessments, use of real-time data to inform instruction engagement with families and educator’s online training in rural areas.

The program sounds exciting, especially for rural districts in Alaska that would be good candidates for the ConnectEDucator dollars, but only if the program promotes rural districts in the application process. Currently, the ConnectEDucator will not move forward unless funding is approved, which could be a long uphill battle.

E-rate

Jessica Rosenworcel, commissioner, Federal Communications Commission, spoke about plans for revamping E-rate. She pointed out that in South Korea, students have high speed broadband and by 2016 all text books will be converted to digital formats. In Ireland all schools will have broadband speed of 100 Mbps and Finland is next.

Jessica stressed that the U.S. is falling behind and all American students need high speed broadband, no matter who they are or where they go to school. E-rate 2.0 has helped connect more than 95 percent of schools, but that still isn’t good enough.

The FCC is working to modernize E-rate to get all kids connected at the speed necessary to take advantage of the most cutting edge technology.
Jessica reminisced on the old three Rs of education: readin’, writin’ and rithmatic. But the FCC is planning on the three S’s for E-rate.

  • Speed. Jessica said that in the near term, classrooms need 100 Mbps per 1000 students, but the FCC is looking at the SETDA recommendations for long term, and that means that by the end of the decade 1 Gigabit per 1000 students.
  • Simplify. There is a lot of bureaucracy associated with E-rate and Jessica suggested simplifying the application process to cut down on administration costs. She would like to see applications due every other year.
  • Spending Smart. The FCC wants to spend the limited dollars available intelligently and phase out services that our outdated. In 1998 when the E-rate program launched, it had $2.25 billion in annual support. But that was when less than one percent of Americans had broadband and gas was a dollar a gallon. Jessica suggested that at minimum we need to restore the purchasing power of this program by bringing back what inflation has taken away.

It is clear that E-rate 2.0 is a focus for the FCC, but I’m looking forward to seeing details of the revamp and the implications for school districts in Alaska. We face a different set of challenges in our rural communities, but like Jessica said in her talk, all students need high speed broadband, no matter who they are or where they go to school. It is essential to the success of our kids. New tools are cropping up that students and teachers could leverage in education, but in order to take advantage, we must first ensure that all districts are equipped with high speed broadband.

***

Are the high speed broadband needs of schools in your community currently being met? Please share your comments. You can also chat with me on Twitter at @plloyd.

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Alaska’s Unique Relationship with E-Rate: Part 4 – The FCC Must Consider Alaska Differently Than Most States

This is a four-part blog series about Alaska’s unique relationship with the E-Rate program. To view all blog posts within this series click here.

It’s been a hallmark week for E-Rate reform in America. On Sunday the FCC announced that it would double E-Rate broadband funding in the next two years. This was spurred by a White House initiative to promote broadband access in the classroom known as ConnectED, which will help schools connect to high-speed broadband, moving beyond basic Internet.

E-Rate reform will play a major role in how these funds get allocated. Some of this entails ending E-Rate discounts for outdated technologies like dial-up connections, but it also means a potential change in how E-Rate funds are disbursed. We need to take into account the needs of rural communities like Alaska to ensure equal quality of broadband across the nation.

Broadband networks have become the hallmark of modern day society, delivering high-speed internet connections that promote economic development in education, healthcare, and business. But what happens when one population of society is significantly disadvantaged? In this final installment of my E-Rate blog series, I would like to make the case that the FCC must give special consideration to Alaska, especially in its classification of rural communities, as it modernizes the current  E-Rate program.

Image via The Alaska Statewide Broadband Taskforce.

Image via The Alaska Statewide Broadband Taskforce.

Data shows that Alaska is at a disadvantage when it comes to broadband. According to the Alaska Broadband Task Force report, dated August 2013, over 21,000 households in Alaska do not have broadband.  More than half of the nation’s anchor tenant institutions (hospitals, schools, libraries) listed as having insufficient broadband capabilities are in Alaska. Due to this broadband depravation, 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. For most of rural Alaska, the anchor tenants, like public libraries, are the only place for community members to have access to the Internet, while many homes are left with satellite speeds that barely are above dial-up. The disparity between Alaska’s broadband adoption compared to more urban areas prompts the question of how this will be addressed in E-Rate 2.0. U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte and FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai take a good stab at this question in their recent op-ed addressing how to bring rural classrooms to the digital age.

To understand the goals of E-Rate 2.0, we must look back to the beginning of this federal program. 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. In the timespan of 15 years, schools and libraries that have leveraged E-Rate have made great strides in providing quality education and community access to online information and resources, while increasing broadband adoption. However, Alaska is still striving for this same digital equity.

The focus on E-Rate 2.0 reform coupled with President Obama’s ConnectED initiative to connect 99% of America’s students to high-speed broadband will have a significant impact on schools and we need to make sure the unique needs of Alaska are addressed and that Alaskan students are not in the 1%. Even with 90% subsidies, most schools and libraries in Alaska still do not have adequate bandwidth. Now is the time in history where we can help rural communities like those in Alaska cross the digital divide and get on the information highway.

Alaska’s unique rural environment is a part of this equation. There are approximately 500 public schools in 53 districts and about 65% of these school districts are in urban areas, while the rest comprise the Regional Educational Attendance Areas (REAAs). Many of the schools in the REAA have less than 20 students. The vast geography and scale of Alaska has forced educators and community members to rely on technology to bridge the limited resources gap for teaching, learning, and information. Since E-Rate’s inception, funds have been used to build fiber broadband connections, as opposed to maintaining a baseline standard of service with satellite. A considerable investment would be required to get all of Alaska on fiber – an investment beyond what is provided by E-Rate and the potential lack of funding proposed in the overhaul. As private, public, and non-profit organizations work together to create a better E-Rate system for American education, they must realize that rural communities require E-Rate discounts in order to maintain adequate Internet access.

One solution that could help balance the growing demand with limited funding comes from my employer General Communications, Inc. (GCI). GCI responded to the E-Rate 2.0 NPRM with a proposal for creating Priority 0 for connectivity between rural communities and Tier 1 Internet access points.  “Establishing a Priority 0 to fund critical data transport from rural communities to fiber-based aggregation points in urbanized centers would help ensure that rural communities can obtain the support they need to be able to connect across long distances from their communities to the Internet.”  Priority 0 also provides a mechanism to allocate support for rural communities should demand exceed the E-Rate support cap.*

If Alaska loses E-Rate funding it will severely cripple the great progress that has been made thus far. Not only would the students and community members in the most remote, rural portions of the state lose the opportunities afforded by a potential fiber or terrestrial network; they would also not be able to maintain their current satellite networks. It would be as if someone turned off the lights; while the rest of the world continues to advance and prosper. Therefore, the FCC must take special account of E-Rate implication in Alaska and establish a Priority 0 for rural communities. We urge the FCC to continue the current E-Rate program in Alaska, in addition to creating financial opportunity for build out of terrestrial infrastructure for Alaska.

*If you are interested in this issue of Alaska broadband, I invite you to read the official E-Rate 2.0 comments submitted by organizations such as The Alaska Department of Education and GCI School Access (my employer). These statements submitted to the FCC go more in-depth on the specific changes requested for E-Rate 2.0. 

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Alaska’s Unique Relationship with E-Rate: Part 3 – E-Rate Program Impact in Alaska

This is a four-part blog series about Alaska’s unique relationship with the E-Rate program. 

E-Rate is a proven, successful model for schools and libraries across America.  With the recent completion of the FCC’s response window for the Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) on E-Rate 2.0, the conversation must shift now to bringing digital equity to EVERYONE, no matter their zip code.  The majority of comments reflect the need and support to grow the E-Rate support to $5 billion annually.  It is no surprise the current E-Rate demand is exceeding the current cap.

General Communications, Inc. (GCI) responded to the E-Rate 2.0 NPRM with a proposal for creating Priority 0 for connectivity between rural communities and Tier 1 Internet access points.  “Establishing a Priority 0 to fund critical data transport from rural communities to fiber-based aggregation points in urbanized centers would help ensure that rural communities can obtain the support they need to be able to connect across long distances from their communities to the Internet.”  Priority 0 also provides a mechanism to allocate support for rural communities should demand exceed the E-Rate support cap.*

The focus on E-Rate 2.0 reform coupled with President Obama’s ConnectED initiative to connect 99% of America’s students to high-speed broadband will have a significant impact on schools.  From an Alaskan focus, it would appear that the 1% will be Alaskan students and library patrons.  We must be mindful that a broad plan will not meet the unique needs for rural schools and libraries.  E -Rate must evolve to provide school districts and libraries in rural areas, with the necessary support they need to ensure quality education opportunities.  For most of rural Alaska, the anchor tenants (libraries and schools) are the only place for community members to have access to the Internet, while many homes are left with satellite speeds that barely are above dial-up.

How Schools and Libraries in Alaska use High-Speed Broadband Networks

In order for Alaska students and community members to have the same opportunities as students and patrons in more populated areas, they need access to similar resources.  Communities in Alaska that have access to high-speed broadband are able to take advantage of distance learning, virtual field trips, and digital literacy. Specifically, high-speed broadband has revolutionized education in Alaska by helping disadvantaged communities stay competitive and by preserving Alaska Native culture.

High Speed Broadband enables remote districts to deliver higher levels of education than the community could otherwise support.  For example, video conferencing can now connect students in one-room schools to highly-qualified teachers in Alaska and around the globe.

In addition, Alaska places a strong emphasis on preserving Alaska Native cultures.  The presence of high-speed broadband allows students to get access to quality education and maintain residence in their communities.  In the past, they would have to leave their communities for an entire school year in order to attend school.  Now, students stay and maintain their Native traditions and practices while maintaining access to the larger Alaskan education system.

Thanks to government stimulus from, BTOP and BIP, several companies have started long-term telecommunications projects throughout the state that are designed to drive economic development, thus improving education.  One of these projects includes, GCI’s Terrestrial for Every Rural Region in Alaska (TERRA), a next-generation communications network in Southwest rural Alaska that includes 400 miles of new fiber-optic cable and 13 new microwave towers that connect 65 communities that prior to 2011 were only able to connect to the Internet via high-latency satellite.  GCI continues its vision for TERRA,  in completing terrestrial connectivity to Unalakleet, Shaktoolik, and Nome, this month.  GCI is continuing to build out the network to Kotzebue next year.  TERRA was honored with the National Broadband Award by the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA) as the 2013 Community Broadband Wireless Network of the Year.

Similarly, Copper Valley Wireless’ Cordova microwave extends terrestrial connectivity from Naked Island, AK to the remote, rural community of Cordova, AK.  The project provides special access to the local telephone cooperative, as well as the interexchange carrier to provide high speed broadband to the residents.  Both projects enhance service to community centers, schools, medical clinics and public dafety organizations.

How has your community benefited from E-Rate? Please share in the comments. You can also chat with me on Twitter at @plloyd.

** Comments of General Communication, Inc., in the Matter of Modernizing the E-rate Program for Schools and Libraries, WC Docket No. 13-184 (Sept. 16, 2013) (“GCI Comments”)

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Alaska’s Unique Relationship with E-Rate: Part 2 – Connectivity in Alaska Explained

This is a four-part blog series about Alaska’s unique relationship with the E-Rate program. 

SONY DSCThere’s a reason why we call the rest of America “the lower 48” – Alaska is unique.  The state’s expansive landscape is sparsely inhabited with much of its population spread out over small, remote communities, many of which have no roads and are only accessible by plane. This presents an interesting challenge for the education system. Alaska’s constitution requires a school facility for all communities with ten or more students.  There are approximately 500 public schools in 53 districts and about 65% of these school districts are in urban areas, while the rest comprise the Regional Educational Attendance Areas (REAAs).

Many of the schools in the REAA have less than 20 students. The vast geography and scale of Alaska has forced educators and community members to rely on technology to bridge the limited resources gap for teaching, learning, and information. In addition, the geographic landscape necessitates broadband to be delivered over satellite connectivity for many of our rural schools and libraries. While satellite technology continues to evolve, it is both expensive and limited in meeting the bandwidth needs of today’s global, mobile learning environments.

This is the fundamental difference between Alaska and the contiguous United States. Since E-Rate’s inception, funds have been used to build fiber broadband connections, as opposed to maintaining a baseline standard of service with satellite. A considerable investment would be required to get all of Alaska on fiber – an investment beyond what is provided by E-Rate and the potential lack of funding proposed in the overhaul. As private, public, and non-profit organizations work together to create a better E-Rate system for American education, they must realize that rural communities require enhanced E-Rate discounts in order to maintain adequate Internet access.

In the past few years, Alaska has been successful in building out microwave infrastructure throughout Southwest Alaska using funds via a grant/loan program administered by the Rural Utilities Services Broadband Improvement Program where 69 communities now have terrestrial Internet, not satellite. Telecommunications in Alaska has been slow to gain momentum with terrestrial infrastructure and we can’t afford to stop our progress now. As we continue to push broadband throughout rural Alaska into the Northwest, we will also need a reformed E-Rate system that factors in the unique challenges faced by Alaska.

How is your community uniquely affected by E-Rate? I would love to hear in the comments. You can also chat with me on Twitter at @plloyd.

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Alaska’s Unique Relationship with E-Rate: Part 1 – The Digital Landscape in Alaska

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.

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Our Homes are Cut Off from the Web Too

The lack of high-speed internet access for students has been the focus of a lot of attention recently. In June, President Obama announced the ConnectED program with the goal of getting 99% of students access to high-speed internet.

In addition, a recent Op-Ed in The New York Times by Ford Foundation President Luis A. Ubiñas asserts that every school needs access to broadband internet to ensure that children are prepared to succeed in our digital world. He cites some disturbing statistics on the inadequacies faced by many American children, which were also noted by President Obama’s call for reform.

And the situation is even worse for the students I work with in remote, rural Alaska. While today most schools are online, the Internet speeds in poor communities are so low that they cannot access most Websites or take advantage of the latest collaborative tools.

The proposed path forward for correcting this problem through ConnectED and according to Mr. Ubiñas includes:

  • Overhauling E-Rate to ensure sufficient Internet is in every school and library
  • Increasing consumer contributions to the Universal Service Fund to provide more E-Rate funding
  • Training teachers and librarians to advocate for digital education
  • Prioritizing broadband to a necessary part of our national infrastructure

I would like to take these proposals a step further. In order for children to become digital leaders in our increasingly global society they must be able to participate in a 24/7 learning environment. That not only means that they need access to fast and reliable Internet at school, but also at home. And they also need the technology tools at home to do so.

Programs that provide each student with a laptop computer to use at school and home, commonly referred to as one-to-one, have swept not only the nation, but are being implemented around the world. Over the years, K-12 education has established four specific goals around one-to-one laptop programs.

  • Increase academic achievement
  • Increase equity in access to digital instructional resources to reduce the digital divide
  • Increase economic competitiveness by preparing its students with 21st-century skills for the workforce
  • Transform the quality of instruction in the classroom to create a more student-centered classroom

Alaska has been a leader in one-to-one programs. The Association of Alaska School Boards (AASB) formed the Consortium for Digital Learning with the main purpose of investigating the potential of these devices to meet general one-to-one program goals such as developing 21st-century skills and preparing students for success in the global economy. Today AASB has over 100 one-to-one laptop school projects.

Join me at ISTE 2013 to learn more about one-to-one programs, specifically at the SIG 1:1 Annual Meeting and the SIG 1:1 Forum – 1:1 Guidebooks for Leaders. And let’s keep the recent focus on these necessary technology tools at the forefront of education discussion.

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