Education Week - May 31, 2017 - 8
DIGITAL DIRECTIONS > Tracking news and ideas in educational technology
By Benjamin Herold
There's a new worry for schools and
libraries already jittery about possible
changes to the popular federal E-rate
But what's not clear is whether the
issue signals a larger shift in priorities at the Federal Communications
Commission, an ongoing problem with
the E-rate's cumbersome application
process, or both.
In recent weeks, according to
school broadband advocates, more
than 100 districts have received
letters questioning their plans to
use federal E-rate funds to support
construction of fiber-optic networks.
The plans in some cases had already
The new inquiries, however, have
prompted more uncertainty on top
of delays that have already lasted
months. In some cases, concern has
arisen over what the confusion might
mean for the viability of hard-fought
efforts to bring high-speed internet to
some of the country's hardest-to-reach
Take, for example, the situation
of Kimball Sekaquaptewa, a manager with AMERIND Critical Infrastructure, a tribally owned LLC
that works with tribal governments,
schools, and libraries to expand
broadband access in American Indian
communities. Sekaquaptewa spent
18 months organizing a consortium of
tribal libraries serving four sovereign
pueblo communities in New Mexico.
Last spring, the group submitted an
E-rate application that proposed to
take advantage of both federal dollars and state matching funds to
cover the costs of a new, $4.2 million
fiber network that would serve the
The E-rate is a federal program that
helps subsidize the cost of telecommunications services for public schools
and libraries. The Universal Service
Administrative Co., which sent out the
letters received by Sekaquaptewa and
others, administers the program.
In March, Sekaquaptewa said, she
was notified the project had been approved, and the consortium received
a funding commitment from USAC.
The consortium immediately began
moving forward on the project-a
complicated endeavor that involves
developing an engineering plan, gaining approval for rights-of-way to cross
four tribal lands, and more.
Then, last month, the consortium
received from USAC a six-page letter
full of questions seeking additional
The inquiry has caused considerable
uncertainly, including worries that
USAC's funding commitment could
be in doubt.
"I'm confused as to why these questions are being asked at this time,"
The stakes are high: The four
tribal libraries could not afford the
fiber construction project without
the reimbursement that the E-rate
would provide. And if the project
were to fall through, among those
affected would be the people of Cochiti Pueblo (where Sekaquaptewa
resides on reservation land about
22 miles southwest of Santa Fe),
which would remain stuck with a
single old copper T1 line for its library and other public services.
In 2014, under previous Chairman Tom Wheeler, a Democrat,
the FCC overhauled the E-rate.
The commission increased the
program's annual spending cap
from $2.4 billion to $3.9 billion, prioritized broadband and Wi-Fi over
older technologies, and enacted new
rules intended to make it easier for
rural schools and libraries to access
affordable high-speed internet.
Some of those rules have to do
with what's known as "special fiber
construction." Essentially, they
were supposed to allow schools and
libraries-mostly rural-to use Erate funds to help pay for new fiberoptic networks to be built; to lease
fiber networks themselves, rather
than just paying for the information that flows across them; and to
use federal funds to build their own
fiber networks if they can't find a viable company to do it for them.
Evan Marwell was one of those
who pushed for the new specialconstruction rules.
Now, the CEO of broadbandadvocacy group EducationSuperHighway says he's worried that the
new leadership of the FCC might be
seeking to roll those rules back.
"This is the most immediate thing
we're concerned about," Marwell
said. "This year, we're going to see
over 7,500 schools serving nearly 5
million kids take advantage of these
provisions. When we have something that's working, why would we
take it off course?"
Similar concerns about the future
of the E-rate program have popped
up repeatedly since President Donald Trump appointed Ajit Pai, a
Republican, to be FCC chairman in
As a commissioner, Pai voted
against the 2014 E-rate modernization orders. He wrote at the time
that he supported the overall goals
of the program, but worried that the
changes would encourage wasteful
spending and do little to help rural
districts or improve the widely disliked E-rate application process.
One of Pai's first moves as chairman was to rescind an FCC staff
report outlining the success of the
E-rate modernization order. The
move prompted an outcry from some
K-12 and ed-tech groups, as well as
key Democratic lawmakers. It also
heightened concerns that Pai might
be looking to move the E-rate program in a different direction.
Then, last month, Pai sent a
scathing letter to USAC CEO Chris
Henderson, demanding improve-
8 | EDUCATION WEEK | May 31, 2017 | www.edweek.org
Photo by Swikar Patel/Education Week
Letters to Districts Prompt Worries About E-Rate's Future
What is it? A federal program
to help subsidize the cost of
for schools and libraries, the
E-rate is one of four universalservice programs overseen by
the Federal Communications
Why was it created? The U.S.
government believes that all
Americans should have access
to basic telecommunications
How has it changed? In
1996, Congress passed the
Telecommunications Act to
(among other goals) broaden
the definition of universal
service to include the internet
and to expand the recipients
of universal-service funds to
include schools and libraries.
In 2014, the FCC modernized
the E-rate, raising the
program's annual spending cap
and prioritizing broadband and
Wi-Fi over older technologies.
How much does it spend?
The E-rate's current spending
cap is $3.9 billion per year.
Funds for the program are
provided by telecommunications
carriers, who pass the cost
on to consumers in the form
of universal-service fees on
What's next? New FCC
Chairman Ajit Pai says the
E-rate is "worth fighting for,"
but he could seek to make
changes in the program's
spending cap, funding
process, and rules.
Students at Vardaman High School in Mississippi continue to complete
worksheets and pay no attention to the poor internet connection during a
World History class in November 2015.
REVERSING A RAW DEAL: See a special series about the challenges of bringing high-speed
internet to rural schools, and the role of the E-rate in addressing those challenges.
ments in the E-rate application
process. Henderson resigned two
weeks later. While many in the edtech community worried about the
timing, there is general agreement
that the E-rate application process
needs to be improved.
So, are the special-fiber-construction letters sent by USAC to districts a sign of changes at the new
Republican-led FCC? Or are they
more evidence of an E-rate application and approval process that Pai
already knows is in need of dramatic upgrades?
Through a spokesman, the FCC
declined to comment.
Tracy Weeks, the executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association, thinks
it's mostly the latter.
In a letter SETDA sent to the
FCC on April 28, Weeks raised
"serious concerns" about USAC's
approach on the special-fiber-construction projects, noting that the
new inquiries are coming incredibly late in the approval process.
As a result, she wrote, that could
mean schools are denied funds for
applications that have already been
greenlighted and meet all rules currently on the books.
Like Marwell of EducationSuperHighway, Weeks said that any potential changes to the FCC's rules should
at minimum not be applied to applications made in 2016, which would
wreak havoc on plans that have been
months or years in the making.
However, Weeks said she's not
sure the problem signals any larger
"We're focused on the concerns with
the application process," she said. "We
want to make sure the chairman is
aware this is a challenge."
Uncertainty Fuels Anxiety
The continued uncertainty is
causing considerable anxiety for districts like the 1,800-student Socorro
consolidated schools, in southern
The district has relatively robust
and affordable internet access
for the five schools in town. But
it's a different story for Socorro's
two outlying schools, which serve
about 100 students each. The district pays as much to bring those
two buildings slow wireless-relay
connections (they become unreliable when it's windy) as it pays for
the connections in the rest of the
district, said district IT director
Last year, Socorro put out a request for proposals for companies
that could provide fiber to the
schools. The best option by far, said
Tull, is for Socorro to work with
its existing university partner and
a private vendor to run new fiber
lines, which the school system would
then own. That's the plan that Socorro submitted last year to USAC,
under the new E-rate special-fiberconstruction rules.
It's been nothing but delays since.
"The  E-rate cycle just
closed, and I still don't have an answer from last cycle," Tull said.
"Unfortunately, we're still in
Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Education Week - May 31, 2017
Education Week - May 31, 2017
Where Career Plans Start Early
States Struggle to Define ‘Ineffective Teachers’
Trump Priorities on Full Display In K-12 Budget
For Schools, Rating Students’ Character Is a Tricky Prospect
News in Brief
Charter Win Brings Big Shift to L.A. Unified
Reading and the Mind : An Author Q&A
Letters to Districts Prompt Worries About E-Rate’s Future
States’ Spec. Ed. Work Offers a Jump on ESSA’s Demands
Amid Fiscal Crisis, Puerto Rico Shuts Down Scores of Schools
Budget Plan Spares Some Ed. Research Efforts, Cuts Others
Trump Budget Draws Ire, Tepid Support From School Choice Worl
Darienne Driver: A Collective-Impact Approach to Equity
Steve Canavero:Two-Party Support Gives School Funding Wider Reach
Peggy Lehner: Money Doesn’t Ensure Equity
Veronica Palmer: Empowering Families to Lead
Pedro A. Rivera: A Fair Formula for Funding
John Schoenig: Our Children Are Made for Greatness
Tammy Wawro: Confronting the Realities of a Changing Population
TopSchoolJobs Recruitment Marketplace
Danielle Gonzales & Ross Wiener: Yes, Schools Have an Equity Problem. What Should We Do About It?
Education Week - May 31, 2017 - For Schools, Rating Students’ Character Is a Tricky Prospect
Education Week - May 31, 2017 - 2
Education Week - May 31, 2017 - 3
Education Week - May 31, 2017 - News in Brief
Education Week - May 31, 2017 - Report Roundup
Education Week - May 31, 2017 - Charter Win Brings Big Shift to L.A. Unified
Education Week - May 31, 2017 - Reading and the Mind : An Author Q&A
Education Week - May 31, 2017 - Letters to Districts Prompt Worries About E-Rate’s Future
Education Week - May 31, 2017 - 9
Education Week - May 31, 2017 - 10
Education Week - May 31, 2017 - 11
Education Week - May 31, 2017 - 12
Education Week - May 31, 2017 - Amid Fiscal Crisis, Puerto Rico Shuts Down Scores of Schools
Education Week - May 31, 2017 - 14
Education Week - May 31, 2017 - 15
Education Week - May 31, 2017 - 16
Education Week - May 31, 2017 - 17
Education Week - May 31, 2017 - Trump Budget Draws Ire, Tepid Support From School Choice Worl
Education Week - May 31, 2017 - 19
Education Week - May 31, 2017 - Steve Canavero:Two-Party Support Gives School Funding Wider Reach
Education Week - May 31, 2017 - Pedro A. Rivera: A Fair Formula for Funding
Education Week - May 31, 2017 - Letters
Education Week - May 31, 2017 - TopSchoolJobs Recruitment Marketplace
Education Week - May 31, 2017 - 24
Education Week - May 31, 2017 - 25
Education Week - May 31, 2017 - 26
Education Week - May 31, 2017 - 27
Education Week - May 31, 2017 - Danielle Gonzales & Ross Wiener: Yes, Schools Have an Equity Problem. What Should We Do About It?
Education Week - May 31, 2017 - CW1
Education Week - May 31, 2017 - CW2
Education Week - May 31, 2017 - CW3
Education Week - May 31, 2017 - CW4