Comments Submitted to the FCC on E-Rate

Before the Federal Communications Commission
Washington, DC 20554
WC Docket No. 13-184

I. Introduction

The National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), representing 22,000 middle level and high school principals, assistant principals, and other school leaders, is pleased to provide these reply comments on this Commission rulemaking, which we hope will chart the path for the E-Rate’s future. The promise of technology in classrooms and schools is boundless. It can increase equity and access to educational opportunities for all students and enhance the impact and reach of great teaching. Technology can help reshape how education is delivered, making learning more personalized for each student and recognizing teachers as education designers. It can lower costs and increase efficiency and productivity. Our schools should prepare students for the world of tomorrow with the best tools of today. Schools should use real-world technology that allows students to grapple with real-world problems so they can compete in a globally competitive economy. But most schools are behind the technology curve, lacking the resources, infrastructure, hardware, software, and human capacity needed to prepare students with 21st century technology skills. And even when the schools have the right technological tools, the teachers and students won’t make use of those tools if they can’t rely on the connectivity of their broadband network.

Before we look toward the future, it is important to understand how and why E-Rate has meant so much to schools and libraries across the country and the role it has played in opening the door to digital learning. One of the central reasons for the E-Rate’s success is that the program is locally driven and allows applicants to choose services and technologies that make the best sense for their needs and budgets. Each applicant has been able to examine its needs, formulate a technology strategy, and leverage E-Rate funding to implement its digital learning vision. E-Rate has been transformative for many schools around the country-including high-poverty schools-by assisting them in creating updated, robust networks that can support a wide array of digital devices, tools, and learning models.

In Arlington County Public Schools (VA), E-Rate funds have been used to support school infrastructure, which includes cabling for computers, wireless Internet, mobile devices, and telecommunications. Over the past two years, the federal support has allowed Kenmore Middle School to provide any family in need in need with a laptop at no cost. E-Rate funds also helped to provide the infrastructure that allows these families to have wireless Internet access after school at any Arlington Public School facility, including their libraries and recreation centers. Kenmore Principal John Word is hopeful that E-Rate funds will help prepare the schools to support an expected 1:1 initiative in the coming years and the growing numbers of faculty and students bringing their own devices on the campus.

Patapsco High School and Center for the Arts (MD) is an excellent example. This urban, high-needs school served 1,444 students in the 201112 school year, 91% of whom were eligible for free and reduced price lunches. Back in 2009, the school’s building was 50 years old, and, despite contending with cuts in funding and a reduction in staff members, former Principal Ryan Imbriale led an aggressive plan to outfit the building with a robust wireless infrastructure, equip classrooms with the latest technology, implement an open policy for mobile devices, create a sustained plan for the use of social media for communication and learning, and provide high-quality professional development for the entire staff. While Patapsco does not apply directly for E-Rate funds, it benefits from its district’s applications for E-Rate support. According to Mr. Imbriale:

Baltimore County Public Schools use E-Rate as a systemic approach to lower telecommunications costs across the entire system. The reduced cost for bandwidth makes a huge difference system-wide for us as we are making this instructional digital conversion. To have a full digital curriculum platform that all teachers, students, and administrators access with reliability constantly each day requires an extremely high level of bandwidth. Therefore E-Rate funding is essential.

Patapsco has leveraged its E-Rate-supported connectivity to launch innovative programs such as a fully blended learning curriculum pilot in science as part of a collaborative effort between the school, the district, and a local community college. Imbriale also worked with Patapsco alumni to start a student app club. In the last four years, Patapsco has gone from barely registering to ahead of the curve in technology, earning notice from both US News & World Report and the Washington Post as one of the top high schools in the United States and from the College Board as one of the nation’s top arts integration schools.

Imbriale, who left Patapsco in July to become Baltimore County’s executive director of digital learning, is now in charge of the district’s five-year instructional digital conversion. The five-year program, once completed, will result in a one-to-one platform for all 107,000 students in the district. It is essential, Imbriale has said, to ensure thatall students have quick and consistent access to the web, either through partnerships with the county library or low-cost programs with Internet service providers. Although it seems as if every student is carrying a smart phone or owns an iPad, the fact is that not every student can afford one.

According to John Osgood, principal at CL Jones (NE) Middle School, E-Rate is extremely important to assist schools in providing a digital learning environment for each student. His district saves $20,000 a year in phone and Internet service costs because of E-Rate, which has allowed them to purchase 80 iPads. While $20,000 may not seem like a huge investment, the fact that those district funds have been freed up for the purchase of devices and other services or programs is extremely beneficial.

NASSP would also like to share the story of a school that has never received E-Rate funds in the past but will greatly benefit from efforts to modernize the program in the future. The 225 students who attend St. Paul High School, a preK-12 campus serving a northwestern Arkansas logging community, remain largely isolated from what is an increasingly connected world. More than one-third of the school’s parents live in homes without running water, and less than 10 percent of homes have Internet service.

When Daisy Dyer Duerr, who was named a 2014 NASSP Digital Principal, took over as principal in 2011, the high school was being targeted by the state for poor test scores in literacy and math, and the elementary grades had just been removed from Arkansas’ school improvement roles. St. Paul, which had been consolidated into the Huntsville School District as part of a state-led initiative to merge districts with less than 300 students, was also faced with declining enrollment.

Duerr’s goal was to turn St. Paul into “a small town school that provides a global education,” but doing so required major technology upgrades and teacher training. The school had eight SMART Boards, functioning but outdated computers in a lab and the library, and a MacBook cart purchased but never opened.

Throughout the summer, teachers received training and Duerr started seeking grant funding. The school received $50,000 in Title I turnback money, which allowed Duerr to purchase iPad and Netbook carts. Students also can check out one of 90 Nooks for pleasure reading, and every teacher now has his or her own iPad.

Within a year, St. Paul’s high school was no longer under state supervision. The school has since started a bring-your-own-device program and is holding technology classes for parents. Duerr also has embraced social media and continues to diversify the technology platforms she uses.

“I always preach this to our teachers: Technology should be adding to a lesson, not adding on,” Duerr says. “I don’t want technology to be there for the sake of technology, it always needs to bring richness to the lesson. It needs to bring something more.”

As a member of the Education and Libraries Networks Coalition (EdLiNC), NASSP supports the coalition’s mission to promote and improve E-Rate to fulfill the program’s mission of accelerating the deployment of advanced telecommunications and information services in schools and libraries. While we have also signed on to the formal comments submitted by EdLiNC, NASSP would like to address issues of utmost importance to secondary school leaders and make the following key points:

II. NASSP Supports an Immediate and Permanent Increase to the E-Rate Program’s Annual Funding Level

NASSP is pleased that the Commission is directing its attention to the issue that we have long believed is central to the success of the E-Rate Program-permanently increasing its funding. For years, we have argued that the program, as successful as it has been in helping provide basic Internet connectivity to schools and libraries nationwide, requires additional funding to upgrade these basic connections to broadband. Without the ability to access greater bandwidth speeds in classrooms and libraries, our nation’s students and community members would be hamstrung in their efforts to, among other activities, make use of digital textbooks, take online and distance learning courses, conduct online job searches, access community services, and take online assessments. In addition, we have consistently maintained that the E-Rate’s annual funding cap, essentially unchanged from its inception, is grossly inadequate to fund the bandwidth increases so many schools and libraries require.

The Commission’s first cut at modernizing the E-Rate, unveiled in the Report and Order and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that it adopted on July 11, 2014[1](hereinafter referred to as the July Order), elected to reengineer the existing fund to focus its resources on broadband, including setting bandwidth targets for schools and libraries. To devote more of E-Rate’s existing dollars to broadband, the Commission opted to rename Priority 1 as Category 1(C1) and eliminate program support for nonbroadband services, including voice services (POTS and VoIP), web hosting, and e-mail. Additionally, the Commission restyled Priority 2 as Category 2 (C2), geared C2 towards the goal of ensuring that every classroom and library had adequate WiFi access to support mobile and wireless devices (tablets, laptops, and smart phones), and sized the new C2 at $1 billion per year. Finally, it instituted-for at least the next 2 years-per-student and per-square -oot (for libraries) formulas to disseminate C2 dollars.

While NASSP and our coalition partners supported the Commission’s goals targeted at ensuring ample bandwidth for all schools and libraries, it was far less sanguine about the means used to achieve those ends. We contended originally that the Commission should provide more funding to the successful, robust but cash-strapped E-Rate program rather than eliminate support for older but still important nonbroadband services as the Commission did. We supported in our comments reasonable modest changes to the program’s existing funding distribution structure rather than the Commission’s establishment in C2 of a formula for closing the WiFi gap. We sought enhanced support for rural areas, not the formula floor that the Commission is instituting for smaller schools and libraries, which may not provide some of these schools and libraries with sufficient funds to meet their internal connections’ needs. As we were initially ambivalent about some of these changes, we are pleased the Commission issued the current Further Notice, which finally squarely addresses the issue of the program’s future funding needs.

NASSP stipulates that some of the Commission’s changes are beneficial to the program. It is inarguable that providing some funds for C2 internal connections is far better than the $0 available for Priority 2 last year. In the same vein, we believe that the Commission acted correctly to protect the priority for funding C1 Internet access services, allowing all schools and libraries to maintain their broadband connections even if funding transfers from C2 prove necessary.

However, NASSP contends that even with the eligible service cuts and C2 discount matrix adjustment implemented via the July Order, the E-Rate’s current funding level is clearly and simply inadequate to meet the external (C1) and internal (C2) bandwidth goals that the Commission embraced and adopted in its July Order.

Through the July Order, the Commission aimed to ensure that nearly all classrooms and libraries had access to ample WiFi. A blog from Gigi Sohn in Chairman Wheeler’s office and Patrick Halley from the Wireline Bureau alludes to the Commission’s intention to spend $5 billion in the next five years to purchase, install, and manage the appropriate WiFi technology in the classrooms and libraries that lacked WiFi currently or that would require WiFi upgrades to meet bandwidth goals.[2] However, the Commission could find only $2 billion of the anticipated $5 billion cost for C2 WiFi, leaving the Commission $3 billion short of what it thought would be needed to complete this initial task.

Further complicating E-Rate cost projections is the fact that demand for Internet access has grown substantially each year in the program’s recent funding history. Between 2009 and 2013, committed Internet access dollars nearly doubled, rising from $421 million in 2009 to $829.65 million in 2013. A recently released Commission staff report notes “the likelihood that demand for category one services providing connectivity to school and library premises will continue to grow.”[3] Given the new impetus to reach Commission bandwidth goals and the increasing bandwidth consumption that will necessarily be associated with implementation of WiFi in all classrooms and libraries (e.g., CoSN’s 2013 Broadband survey estimates that presently only 57% of elementary schools and 64% of secondary schools have all classrooms fully equipped with wireless Internet connectivity),[4] NASSP expects significantly greater demand than normal for C1 services in the next few years.

The recent Commission staff report estimates that the July Order’s changes will yield, between Program Year 2015 and Program Year 2019, total savings of $3.618 billion. As the staff report concludes: “The savings from the phase out of nonbroadband services should, on completion, be largely sufficient to cover the annual $1 billion funding target for category two services.” If the staff report’s numbers bear out, this would suggest that no new money should be needed in the immediate future: at least $1 billion would be available annually for C2 in perpetuity, with approximately $1.5 billion still available to cover C1, which will soon be only Internet access.

But is this really enough in the long term (or possibly even the short term) for either the external or internal connections costs supported by the program? NASSP would say “no” for the following reasons:

  1. If the C1 committed dollars number actually doubles again by 2019 or increases at a greater exponential rate (e.g., if a demand spike from more WiFi occurs), Internet access costs will surpass the approximately $1.5 billion available to it in very short order. Should that happen, the new rules mandate a shift of C2 dollars to C1 to cover the shortfall, leading to inadequate C2 funding.
  2. Several studies suggest that $1 billion annually (or $5 billion over five years) is simply inadequate for WiFi build out and sustainability costs. Funds for Learning’s recent chart shows that if all eligible applicants take their funds, the $2 billion allocated by the Commission for the C2 coffers would only reach 80% discount eligible applicants. Even after five years and $5 billion, it is possible that only applicants within the 50%-60% eligible discount range will have received their formula allocations.[5] The CoSN/Education Superhighway study of C2 public school costs “suggests that once all schools and libraries have been upgraded, it will cost approximately $2.2 billion per year ($1.6 billion in E-Rate subsidies) to maintain these networks and upgrade them periodically to list latest standards.”[6] Add private schools and public libraries to the mix and you are actually looking at nearly $1.8 billion in annual costs to E-Rate for WiFi, far north of the $1 billion that the Commission devotes to C2.
  3. Instead of just cutting costs, as it did in C1, the Commission actually elected to add new WiFi services to the eligible services list for C2, most notably caching and managed WiFi services. Even though the Commission justifies these additions as money savers, they also will cost the program upfront money and, in the case of managed WiFi, annualized money. It is not clear how, or if, the Commission is accounting for these new costs in its estimates.

Beyond the fact that the C1 and C2 numbers just don’t seem to add up, the biggest problem for the program is that without additional money, many, many deserving schools and libraries will wait a long, long time to gain WiFi funding. According to the FFL chart, school districts with more than 20% of their students eligible for the National School Lunch Program may not see even a dime of C2 E-Rate money by 2020.[7] That is troubling, particularly as it is a problem that could be remedied by a much needed permanent funding infusion for the program.

Based on the foregoing, we urge the Commission to plan now for the obviously expensive but important broadband future of our nation’s schools and libraries. We think the Commission must act now to permanently increase funding for the program. It should not wait several more years for the inevitable high demand for broadband services and resulting funding crunch that we all know is coming.

III. NASSP Opposes Pilots or Projects that Drain Existing Program Funds and Supports the Preservation of the Principles of Technological Neutrality and Local Decision Making

We understand that the Commission may also be considering additional changes to the program, including pilot programs or projects. Without knowing what the Commission is considering specifically, NASSP restates its position in opposition to new pilots or projects that would remove existing funds from an already oversubscribed program.

Additionally, we must note our continuing support for the policy bedrocks of the program: technological neutrality and local decision making. As our coalition stated at the beginning of the E-Rate modernization rulemaking last year: “We believe that allowing local schools, school districts, and libraries to make their own service purchase decisions makes sense as local entities know their needs and budgets best and often are in the best position to uncover bargains and efficiencies. We believe further that the principle of technological neutrality, which the statute itself requires,[8] remains vital as it not only frees applicants to make their own decisions on the technology that best suits their needs but allows innovative technology companies the opportunity to develop new, E-rate-eligible products and services that meet school and library needs.”[9] Any proposal in opposition to these principles, however meritorious or well intentioned, we must oppose.

IV. Conclusion

NASSP appreciates this opportunity to provide feedback to the Commission and looks forward to further engagement as the FCC continues the important work of expanding and modernizing the E-Rate program for the 21st century.  


[1] Modernizing the E-rate Program for Schools and Libraries, WC Docket 13-184, Report and Order and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (2014) (July Order).[2] Gigi Sohn and Patrick Halley (2014). Answers to Common Questions about the E-Rate Modernization Proposal to Get Wi-Fi in ALL Schools and Libraries. Retrieved from http://www.fcc.gov/blog/answers-common-questions-about-e-rate-modernization-proposal-get-wi-fi-all-schools-and-librarie. [3] Wireline Competition Bureau & Office of Strategic Planning and Policy, WC Docket 13-184, Staff Report (Aug. 12, 2014), at 18. [4] CoSN’s E-Rate and Broadband Survey 2013, In the Matter of Modernizing the E-Rate Program for Schools and Libraries, WC Docket 13-184 (Nov. 7, 2013), at 3. [5] Ta’Chelle Jones (2014). Balancing the E-Rate Budget, Funds For Learning Retrieved from http://www.fundsforlearning.com/blog/2014/09/balancing-the-e-rate-budget (FFL Chart). [6] CoSN and Education Superhighway, Analysis of Costs to Upgrade and Maintain Robust Local Area Networks for all K-12 Public Schools, In the Matter of Modernizing the E-Rate Program for Schools and Libraries, WC Docket 13-184 (May 2014), at 5. [7] FFL Chart. [8] 47 U.S.C. § 254(h)(2)(A); Federal-State Joint Board on Universal Service, CC Docket 96-45, Report and Order, 12 FCC Rcd 8776, 8801, paras. 46-48 (1997) (Universal Service First Report and Order). [9] Comments of EdLiNC, In the Matter of Modernizing the E-Rate Program for Schools and Libraries, WC Docket 13-184, September 16, 2013, pp. 8-9.