E-Rate Program up for Review: Fund Expansion is Not the Answer

The E-Rate program, a subsidy for affordable high-speed broadband to schools and libraries, was once again up for review in today’s Senate Commerce Committee Hearing. Entitled “E-Rate 2.0: Connecting Every Child to the Transformative Powers of Technology,” the hearing addressed various ways to update and expand the E-Rate program so that students and libraries can have access to advanced technologies that did not exist when the program was first started 17 years ago.

The hearing featured a panel of four witnesses: Dr. Sheryl R. Abshire, Chief Technology Officer of the Calcasieu Parish School System, Louisiana; Linda H. Lord, State Librarian at the Maine State Library; Patrick Finn, Senior Vice President, Public Sector of Cisco Systems, Inc.; and James G. Coulter, Co-founder of TPG Capital. 

There was quite a bit of fawning over the program, but Digital Liberty remains skeptical. James Coulter likened the current global efforts to create technologically-proficient students to the Space Race of the mid-20th century, stating “this is a Sputnik moment in education.” He also pointed out that South Korea is on track to eliminate paper textbooks by 2016, and that Turkey will be able to hand out 10 million tablets to its students in 2015. Patrick Finn emphasized that this international competition impacts American students’ abilities to succeed and find jobs in the increasingly connected world. With proper updating, the E-Rate program should be able to help advance the U.S. to the forefront of the current technology education race.

Digital Liberty side note:  I actually went to a high school and a middle school that issued laptops to all students.  They said they would get rid of the text books, but we just ended up with more weight on our backs.

Continuing with the E-Rate program into the twenty-first century faces some serious problems, as do most government programs. Since ti appears the option of completely getting rid of the program is off the table (for now), two general options currently exist: expansion of funding or detailed process reform. Americans for Tax Reform, recently signed a coalition letter in supporting reform in lieu of cancelation, which you can read here.

There are a number of unnecessary costs that would come with the massive expansion that is currently being considered. The proposed administration proposed a $9 billion expansion of the program even though it has $5billion in reserves and a backlog of fund requests around a decade old.  Of course this cost would trickle down to taxpayers in their monthly phone bills as the “universal service fund fee.” What’s worse: since the E-Rate program is funded by the Universal Service Fund, this new tax increase would be imposed without any vote in Congress.

The expansion, specifically, would involve making sure that all public schools and libraries have access to 100 Mbs broadband service. Recent studies even show that the demand for expanding the service is not high at all. According to a 2010 FCC study, 22% are “completely” satisfied and 58% are “mostly” satisfied with their current 10 Mb/s bandwidth. The bar of 100 Mbs is arbitrary and quite frankly not necessary for the majority of he population.

E-Rate must be reformed not expanded. However, the Commerce Committee hearing was much more focused on expanding the flawed program without significant reform. All four witnesses suggested, either implicitly or explicitly, that funding for the E-Rate program be hiked up. Dr. Abshire went so far as to state that without an increase in funding, the E-Rate program will not be able to meet the demand for current and future technology.

Throwing money at a program and hoping it fixes it self is not the way to increase efficiency. The last thing parents in rural and/or poor areas, which are targeted by the E-Rate system, need are higher taxes. Surprisingly, the $5 billion of unused taxpayer funds sitting in the E-Rate account was barely mentioned, nor were the massive, multimillion dollar backlogs dating as far back as 2003.

The resources to meet increasing demand for advanced technology and bandwidth are there—we just need to use them properly. FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai’s streamlined E-Rate reform plan, which he proposed in a speech yesterday, is a great example, as it would create $1 billion more in resources without costing taxpayers an extra cent. Ranking Member Thune even opened the hearing by applauding Pai’s plan and its focus on local decision-making and fiscal responsibility. He concluded that this kind of reform trumps simply dumping more money into E-Rate, as “all government programs must stay within their means during this fiscally challenging time.”

Funding simply is not going to the right places. Commissioner Pai noted in his speech that, in some districts, significantly more money is being spent on connecting bus garages to the Internet than actual classrooms. In the same vein, at today’s hearing, Patrick Finn lamented the fact that priority two services (actually connecting individual classrooms to the network) just get priority one’s leftovers.

By refocusing where money goes, how it gets there, and allowing for greater oversight both by the FCC and local communities, the E-Rate program will be able to better provide for current and future technologies that bring the faster, more reliable, and advanced services. Linda Lord emphasized the massive demand for and incredible value of these in public schools and libraries, particularly in less populated and lower-income states.