Could feds help with school WiFi costs?

The federally administered “e-rate” funding program — much maligned by state elected officials — could actually provide a boon to Idaho.

The Federal Communications Commission is looking at new rules that could free up e-rate money for WiFi in 726 Idaho schools and 143 Idaho libraries. FCC commissioners are expected to vote on the rule changes Friday. If the rules go through, e-rate dollars to offset the state’s cost of hooking up WiFi in high schools and junior high schools, and the state could use the savings to accelerate WiFi installation in elementary and middle schools.

“We’re very excited,” said state schools superintendent Tom Luna, who, along with colleagues in other states, has been pushing for an e-rate upgrade.

The problem is that the e-rate program, established in 1996, hasn’t kept pace with technological changes and the evolving demands of schools and libraries. The FCC collects the funds, through monthly surcharges on cell phone and landline bills, but distributes the money much as it did at the outset. Schools and libraries can still use e-rate dollars to purchase pagers, for example. WiFi is another matter.

“Despite the increasing need for wireless connectivity to support the latest digital learning tools like tablets and interactive textbooks, the E-Rate program currently provides limited support for Wi-Fi,” the FCC said in a fact sheet.

Idaho receives no e-rate money for WiFi, Luna said. According to the FCC’s estimates, the rule changes would provide WiFi in 869 schools and public libraries, ultimately serving 259,187 students.

The initiative — which could affect more than 43.6 million students and 102,000 schools nationwide — would be funded largely through a funding shift.

The FCC would repurpose about $2 billion in 2015 and 2016 — and the long-term plan would eliminate funding for pager, email and voice services. The FCC also hopes to drive down prices for WiFi and broadband connections, by encouraging statewide buying consortia.

Such a buying plan could save states money, by reducing the amount of matching money they would need to provide for WiFi. States could receive a 5 percent funding boost from the FCC by building statewide buying networks, Luna said.

That’s what Luna tried to do last July, by awarding a contract to install state-funded WiFi in high schools and junior high schools. The contract with Nashville, Tenn.-based Education Networks of America drew fire from legislators, who said they were unaware that Luna was planning to award a contract that could run 15 years and cost $33 million. Ninety-three districts and 21 charter schools opted in.

The 2014 Legislature sought to rein in the WiFi program — lawmakers funded $2.4 million for WiFi, but allowed districts to opt out of the state contract, cut their own deal with their own contractor, and receive state reimbursement.

Districts had until June 30 to opt out, and only five districts did so, said Luna.

If the FCC puts e-rate dollars into WiFi, this should free up some state tax dollars.

Under its contract with the state, ENA will be required to pursue e-rate funding for the high school WiFi program. If and when the e-rate dollars start coming in, the state could move its money into WiFi programs at the middle school or elementary school level, Luna said.

The FCC’s e-rate makeover would have no impact on an ongoing funding mess: the Idaho Education Network school broadband system.

E-rate dollars normally fund about three-fourths of the broadband project. But the FCC’s e-rate contractor put Idaho’s payments on hold in March 2013, citing questions about the state’s broadband contract. The 2014 Legislature allocated $11.4 million to keep the broadband system intact through February 2015.

More reading: More about the FCC proposal, from Education Week.




Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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