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Report: E-Rate a Success but Needs Cybersecurity Investment

A recent report on the nationwide initiative to bring Internet connectivity to schools and libraries found it has been a vital part of modernization, and now it needs to invest in making those connections secure.

Students in a library using computers.
A recent report on trends of the E-rate program, which provides federal funding to K-12 schools and libraries for Internet connectivity, revealed that it has been a dependable resource that resulted in greater accessibility to technology at schools, but there remains a concern about the program’s lack of coverage for cybersecurity.

Funds For Learning, a compliance firm that specializes in the E-rate program, released its 12th annual E-rate Trends Report last month, highlighting the program’s effectiveness. The report gathers feedback from applicants to better understand it, and then relays the findings to the the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the organization said in its news release announcing the report.

According to the report, the survey received nearly 2,100 responses — about 10 percent of the nation’s 21,300 E-rate applicants. Of those respondents, 87 percent said their education sites have fast Internet connectivity directly due to E-rate funding, and 86 percent of educators say that students and library-goers are more connected to the Internet than ever thanks to E-rate assistance.

According to the release, the program supports just about every school and library in the country, providing billions of dollars to enhance access to the Internet and computer networking. The report said that 132,013 school and library sites have been connected through E-rate, with around $1.5 billion in funding for Wi-Fi and networking equipment and roughly $1.65 billion for Internet and broadband connections. Ninety-four percent of respondents said that E-rate has proven vital to learning operations, and 89 percent said they rely on the funding each year.

Funds For Learning CEO John Harrington said the success of the program, notably through the pandemic, originates from the groundwork laid in the years leading up to schools switching to remote learning.

“All of this ecosystem (Wi-Fi, network switches, digital learning tools and learning management systems) that schools relied upon during the pandemic was actually put into place in the years running up to (pandemic-related shifts to online learning), in large measure because of the E-rate program,” Harrington told GovTech. “[That work] is probably one of the biggest successes for the E-rate program … it really allowed them to just kind of flip the switch and say, ‘OK kids, go home now.’”

The Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), an advocate for the E-rate program, is an organization comprised of school system technology leaders who help ed-tech leaders usher their districts through digital transformation. Its Chief Executive Officer Keith Krueger said that the program just works.

“It is a reliable funding source because it doesn’t depend on elected officials to approve a budget. It empowers the local decision-makers, and the higher the poverty rate, the higher the support for the school system,” Krueger told Government Technology in an email. “Nothing is perfect, but this is a program that works. The survey shows that in many important ways.”

But for Harrington as well as Krueger, there is a glaring omission in the program: cybersecurity. This isn’t a new concern. CoSN submitted a petition last year asking the FCC to invest in cybersecurity protections through the program. CoSN also led an event earlier this year with a number of policymakers and ed-tech stakeholders to push for updates to the E-rate program. Though no updates have been made since that May event, Harrington and Krueger still stress the need for program improvements.

“Internet access is only good if it’s reliable and secure. And that is where the E-rate program is woefully inadequate,” Harrington said. “It does not currently support any forms of cybersecurity; it doesn’t support high-reliability designs for Internet access. And that’s really what schools are clamoring for.”

Krueger echoed those sentiments, saying, “The traditional E-rate program must address cybersecurity. Having connectivity that isn’t safe and secure means it isn’t usable.”

The report said that 98 percent of respondents support cybersecurity being eligible through the program for Category 2, or on-campus, funding in 2023. Regarding Category 1 (C1), or broadband services, 84 percent of respondents said that they anticipate needing more broadband in the next few years. About 87 percent of those surveyed said dual Internet — to avoid going offline — should qualify for C1 funding through the program, the report said.

“We know from practice that, when a school network goes down, it’s no longer just an inconvenience. It really means that school is out of session until that network is back up and running,” Harrington said. “Currently the program kind of just pays lip service to supporting firewalls for networks. … Up to this point, the FCC has refused to take action.”

One other controversial area addressed in the survey was regarding the FCC’s proposed bidding portal, where all potential vendors would submit bids to the Universal Service Administrative Company, which administers funds under the direction of the FCC. The respondents were split on whether the portal would improve E-rate: 27 percent said they don’t feel federalizing the process is a good idea, 40 percent believe it will improve the program and another 33 percent neither agree nor disagree that the proposed bidding portal would improve the program. The portal would essentially take the decision out of the hands of the schools and libraries and put it in the control of the FCC, Harrington said. While the portal would be entirely transparent and available to auditors, Harrington said it might be a hard sell as a blanket solution.

“It just simply may not be legal in many jurisdictions. The schools operate under specific procurement regulations, and they may not be allowed to have a third party receive those bids and open the bids on their behalf,” he said. “It’s kind of a step towards just a federalized decision-making process, and I think schools or libraries are a little reluctant to give over the choice for their equipment or the Internet access to some faceless bureaucrat in Washington.”
Giovanni Albanese Jr. is a staff writer for the Center for Digital Education. He has covered business, politics, breaking news and professional soccer over his more than 15-year reporting career. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Salem State University in Massachusetts.