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”)