The program that pays some of the cost of bringing Internet connectivity to schools and libraries is set for an overhaul. The FCC at today’s monthly meeting adopted a notice of proposed rulemaking aimed at reforming the Universal Service schools and libraries program.
“We need to do this for our children and we need to do this for our nation,” said FCC Acting Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn at today’s meeting.
The move was triggered, in part, by a speech made by President Obama several weeks ago setting a goal of bringing high-speed connectivity to most of the nation’s schools.
According to information presented at the FCC meeting today, however, the NPRM does not offer a detailed reform plan but instead sets out three key reform goals and asks for input on how to achieve those goals.
The three goals are:
• Ensure schools and libraries have affordable access to broadband
• Maximize the cost-effectiveness of purchases
• Streamline administration
“We’re in a moment where the rest of the world is trying to out-educate us,” said FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, citing data showing that 100% of schools in Singapore and South Korea have broadband and that nearly all secondary and primary schools in Uruguay are connected. In addition, she noted that students in Uruguay also get free laptops and that Thailand has a policy of providing one tablet per child. Yet only 15% of U.S. schools believe they have the bandwidth they need, she said.
“Let’s do something audacious,” said Rosenworcel, who recommends a target of one gigabit connectivity per 1,000 students by the end of the decade, adding that libraries should have connectivity that is “on par.”
FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai offered a bit different take on what the reforms should include. Pai didn’t discuss data rates, but instead called for funding to be based on the number of students, with a higher funding level for rural and lower-income students. In addition he recommended a requirement that local schools spend one dollar for every three dollars they receive through the program.
Pai also recommended the creation of a list of supported services and allowing individual school districts to choose from those services, making their own decisions about how to spend money. But Rosenworcel emphasized the importance of making this a national program. “You can’t leave it to every local school jurisdiction [or] you will miss the opportunity for scale and savings,” she said.
According to FCC officials, the NPRM asks for input on a variety of issues, such as:
• Whether President Obama’s target of one gigabit connectivity to and within 95% of the nation’s schools within five years is appropriate
• Potential elimination of or adjustment to a current rule that prioritizes services such as traditional phone service over connectivity within a school building (an idea that seems to have broad support, based on commentary offered at the meeting)
• How the application process could be simplified and streamlined (another idea that seems to have broad support)
• What child Internet protection measures should be part of the reforms
• How the infrastructure might be used in case of emergencies or disasters