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 Some of this entails ending E-Rate discounts for outdated technologies like dial-up connections, but it also means a potential change in how E-Rate funds are disbursed.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.
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.