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February 10, 2010 9:01 AM

Missing The Mark On E-Rate 2.0

Yesterday Rep. Markey (D-MA) introduced a bill dubbed the E-Rate Act 2.0. It's intended to be an evolution of the E-Rate program, which reimburses schools for their telecommunications costs. It proposes adding three pilot programs to subsidize broadband at home for low-income students, to extend support to community colleges, and to subsidize the cost of e-books.

While I think the ideas brought up in this bill are worthwhile, I'm completely dumbfounded at the assumption Markey and others are making that E-Rate 1.0 actually worked. Check out this quote from the bill's press release from Markey:

"The original E-Rate Bill that I authored has largely fulfilled its mission of linking up schools to the Web. The fact that only 14 percent of K-12 classrooms had Internet access at the time the 1996 bill was enacted, compared to more than 95 percent today, is a testament to that success."

So by Markey's estimation, E-Rate 1.0 has largely solved the bandwidth issue for schools in America. But is this actually the case? Do schools have enough bandwidth to meet their needs today? What about tomorrow? Can we declare mission accomplished?

I'm here to say today that the answer to all of these questions is a resounding NO!

And I'm not alone. Check out this quote from a 2008 report from the State Educational Technology Directors Association:

"Based upon our observations, most schools in the country are at T1 (1.54 Mbps) connection speeds... Broadband connection speeds in schools are already behind average households, and in the next few years as bandwidth needs expand, schools will need to significantly upgrade their high-speed broadband capabilities to try to keep pace with what children are accustomed to at home. Even in schools that are
sufficiently connected with broadband, bandwidth demand is quickly exceeding capacity as they utilize advanced technology tools. Simply having connectivity is not enough: without measurable upgrades in bandwidths to allow for greater speeds - or even to
maintain current speeds as demand grows, teachers and students will be severely limited in the technology applications they can utilize."

Notice the difference between this analysis and Markey's. Not only is SETDA saying that most schools don't have enough bandwidth today, but even those with sufficient capacity now don't necessarily have a clear path for upgrading to keep up with demand over time.

Measuring E-Rate's success based on how many classrooms are connected to the Internet is the wrong way to look at things. The real question is have we provided enough bandwidth for classrooms to be able to actually use the Internet? And to that the answer is unequivocally no.

For any school in America to have nothing more than a T-1 line to serve its entire student body should be considered a national embarrassment.

Let's put this in more concrete terms. Say you have one computer lab with thirty computers in a school. If thirty students try to surf the Internet at the same time with nothing more than a T-1 to share, that means they'll have about 50Kbps each to work with. That's less than dialup.

The other failure of e-rate is to do anything to bring down the cost of bandwidth. Instead E-Rate is designed to subsidize access to whatever infrastructure is currently available on whatever terms are currently offered. That means you've got some schools paying more for a T-1 than others are paying to get 100Mbps over fiber.

The biggest reason for this is that E-Rate as it's currently setup can only be used to reimburse for the cost of service, not the cost of deploying new infrastructure.

And yet nothing in Markey's E-Rate 2.0 proposal does anything to address these two fundamental flaws with E-Rate 1.0.

How can we consider expanding or reforming E-Rate without doing anything to guarantee that schools have the bandwidth they need at a price they can afford?

Before we worry about expanding E-Rate into new areas, we need to readdress what isn't working at the core of the program. Because without access to sufficient bandwidth at reasonable prices, nothing that we want to see with regards to broadband-enabled education will ever come to pass.

We need to realize that there's still a clear and present crisis in classrooms across the country when it comes to being able to access the Internet at speeds that enable teachers and students to actually use the Internet.

And we need an E-Rate program that addresses this crisis head-on. The future of our children, their education, and ultimately our country's competitiveness depends on it.

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