With concerns about school internet access buzzing in the wake of the FCC’s vote to repeal net neutrality, anxiety over school internet access might transfer to the federal E-rate program–but there’s no need to worry, according to E-rate experts.
When the FCC voted to repeal net neutrality, education stakeholders worried the move would be a step backwards for digital equity inside classrooms. Some worried that even in classrooms with digital equity, net neutrality’s repeal would leave students in low-income neighborhoods at a disadvantage and widen the homework gap.
While net neutrality’s impact on the marketplace and internet access has yet to be determined, there are things schools can do to protect themselves if they’re worried about throttling or blocking–concerns brought up during the net neutrality debate, says John Harrington, CEO of E-rate consulting firm Funds For Learning.
Schools should build that concern directly into their E-rate requests for proposals.
“The advantage a district has is that it can leverage and negotiate. If your district has a concern about throttling or blocking, put in your requirements that you won’t use a service provider that slows down, throttles, or blocks traffic,” says Harrington. “That’s an easy way to make sure that, at least for schools and libraries, it isn’t an issue. That’s not something the typical consumer can negotiate, but a school district absolutely can.”
Harrington believes the E-rate program is likely to see changes this year, and FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has said he would like the program’s administration to improve. In fact, new CEO Radha Sekar joined USAC in December of 2017. Former CEO Chris Henderson resigned in May of last year after Pai sharply criticized the program’s online E-rate Productivity Center.
But Pai’s criticism focuses on the E-rate program’s administration and doesn’t threaten the program’s existence, says Harrington.
“Chairman Pai and his advisers have consistently said they continue to support the E-rate program and have no plans to try and repeal or change it. E-rate has had a 20-year track record of bipartisan support, and we’ve not seen anything that would indicate this has changed whatsoever, not on Capitol Hill and not at the FCC.”
What the FCC does want to address is how the program is administered. “Pai has written to USAC calling for a better job,” says Harrington.
The current set of E-rate rules expires in 2020, and the regulatory process to renew those rules will likely kick off by the fourth quarter of 2018, says Harrington, adding that he expects to see a discussion around the rules in that timeframe.
And while net neutrality has been controversial, the E-rate program hasn’t the same sort of debate about the program itself–the existential question has not been there, Harrington said.
In the fall of 2017, under Pai’s leadership, the FCC opened a special filing window for schools and libraries impacted by the hurricanes. That isn’t something an agency does for a program it doesn’t intend to continue, Harrington added.
“You don’t open a special window if you don’t think the program is worth supporting. That’s the first time in the 20-year history of the program that the FCC decided a special group of applicants needed help,” he said. “Everything I’m hearing is a discussion about how the program should be improved or modified–and that’s a very different discussion than whether we should have an E-rate program or not.”