The federal E-Rate program has pumped billions of dollars into new technology for schools and libraries since its creation in 1996. And its impact has been dramatic: When the program launched, just 14 percent of K-12 schools were connected to the Internet, according to the FCC. Today, virtually all schools and libraries have Internet access.

But after nearly 20 years, the program is showing its age. The FCC is updating E-Rate to phase out support for outdated tech like paging. In addition, the commission intends to streamline the review process for E-Rate applications, increase the use of bulk purchasing to drive down prices and refocus the program on broadband connectivity.

That final point is crucial. While E-Rate has done well connecting schools to the Web, most campuses lack the bandwidth they need, especially as e-learning technologies place greater strain on school networks. When the FCC surveyed schools and libraries in 2010, half of them reported connection speeds slower than the average U.S. household.

State CIOs are optimistic about the proposed E-Rate changes, but also wary of unexpected surprises connected to the nation’s largest funding source for education technology. A group of state CIOs — in Washington, D.C., for the NASCIO Midyear Conference — met with FCC representatives in May to hear about the changes.

“For us, one of the biggest things that we want to see coming out of the reforms is additional funding for broadband availability, especially to rural areas and underserved inner city communities,” said California CIO Carlos Ramos.

CIOs also want the FCC to make it easier to use E-Rate-supported broadband infrastructure to improve Internet access beyond the classroom. Montana CIO Ron Baldwin said FCC commissioners seem to be leaning in that direction. “One focus for them is — while serving anchor institutions first — to leverage that infrastructure to increase capacity for the state as a whole, which was music to my ears,” he said.

Nebraska CIO Brenda Decker acknowledged that many of the proposed changes are beneficial. But she’s also keeping an eye on revisions that could hurt her state, which relies heavily on the program. “We’re seeing some of the lowest costs for Internet in the country in the state of Nebraska,” she said. “We could lose that for our local schools if E-Rate is changed significantly.”

With billions of dollars at stake, Decker won’t be the only CIO watching E-Rate revisions closely.

Steve Towns, Editor
Steve Towns  |  Editor

Steve Towns is editor of Government Technology, and executive editor for e.Republic Inc., publisher of GOVERNING, Government Technology,Public CIO and Emergency Management magazines. He has more than 20 years of writing and editing experience at newspapers and magazines, including more than 15 years of covering technology in the state and local government market.