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FCC Broadband Plan Pushes Ambitious Agenda for U.S. Education

After almost a year of development that included holding 36 public workshops in person and online and reading through 23,000 public comments, the Federal Communications Commission has released its national broadband plan with a formal report to Congress. Calling high-speed Internet access "indispensable for the 21st century, the foundation for our economy, the foundation for our democracy in the digital age," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski declared the plan "ambitious but achievable."

The 376-page document, titled, "Connecting America: The National Broadband Plan," laid out ways that the federal government can design policies to encourage competition in the broadband ecosystem, encompassing network services, devices, applications, and content; ensure the efficient allocation and use of government owned or influenced assets, such as spectrum and the physical components such as rooftops and rights-of-way used for deployment of networks; create incentives for universal availability and adoption of broadband; and update policies and standards in government entities such as public education to maximize usage of broadband capacity.

About half of the plan's recommendations are addressed to the FCC, while the remainder is for Congress, the executive branch, and state and local government, working with the private and nonprofit sectors.

The FCC recommended Congressional creation of a Connect America Fund to provision affordable broadband and voice with a minimum of 4 Mbps download speeds and to shift up to $15.5 billion from the Universal Service Fund to support the initiative. The Committee also encouraged Congress to ease the transition and expedite the effort by funding a "few billion dollars per year over the next two or three years."

As reported on last week, the plan devotes major coverage to the impact of broadband in the education sector.

Proclaiming that "the 21st century workplace requires both a better-educated and a differently educated work force," the plan laid out 25 recommendations in areas such as improving online learning, making data more transparent, and modernizing the educational broadband infrastructure. For example, one goal laid out by the plan is to ensure that every community in America has affordable access to at least one gigabit per second (Gbps) broadband service to anchor institutions, including schools, hospitals, and government buildings. The plan recommended that the United States Department of Education consider investment in open source and public domain software alongside of commercial programs and that accreditation organizations allow students in K-12 and post-secondary education to take more courses for credit online and permit more online instruction across state lines.

Many of the recommendations address FCC requirements related to E-Rate, the FCC program that funds discounts on telecommunications equipment for schools and libraries, including the removal of barriers to off-hours community use of E-Rate funded resources and a streamlining of the application process.

Although the FCC plan encouraged additional funding by Congress to connect all public community colleges with high-speed broadband, it didn't propose an expansion of E-Rate to cover them alongside K-12, as was reported by last week. Currently, according to the FCC, only 16 percent of public community colleges currently have broadband equal to or greater than 90 Mbps, equivalent to what's found in 90 percent of American research universities.

Response among K-12 and higher education organizations has been generally favorable.

Both National LambdaRail and Internet2, consortiums that offer broadband connectivity between member institutions, expressed approval of the FCC's efforts to advance broadband through community anchor institutions, which the two organizations count at 200,000.

"At NLR we've seen based on our own experience how state, regional, and national networks can collaborate to create a seamless, national broadband platform that has helped produce a quantum leap in research and education productivity," said Glenn Ricart, National LambdaRail president and CEO. "We applaud the FCC for recognizing that equipping our community anchor institutions with one-gigabit or higher connectivity to each other and to state and national resources will similarly enable our schools, libraries, healthcare providers, and other community-based organizations to be more productive and to deliver an enhanced array of services."

"The research and education community has for close to a decade promoted the use of advanced networks ... by providing state education networks access to nationwide research and education networks--creating, in essence, a 'National Education Grid,'" added Carol Willis, manager of the Texas Education Telecommunications Network (TETN), and Kim Owen, advanced applications coordinator for North Dakota State University and the North Dakota Statewide Technology Access for Government and Education network, in a joint statement. "A unified community anchor network that builds on this success represents an opportunity to not only reach many more community anchor institutions in the US but also expand the diverse collaborative community of K-20 innovators and expertise developed by our national initiative and others."

ACUTA, the Association for Information Communications Technology Professionals in Higher Education, said it envisions a network of institutions feeding broadband out to the communities where they're located. But it won't happen, the organization suggested, without federal funding support. "Funding has always been a stumbling block for those who would provide universal affordable broadband access," ACUTA said in a statement. "The National Broadband Plan ... is an important first step that paves the way for the FCC and Congress to invest in community anchor institutions, which are uniquely positioned to maximize the return on this vital investment."

The 2,000-member ACUTA said it believes its approach of a "unified community anchor network," or UCAN, would provide a number of benefits, such as:

  • Providing broadband connections efficiently by aggregating demand and sharing capacity;
  • Creating jobs and generating economic growth by supporting the construction of additional broadband capacity;
  • Enabling community anchor institutions to better meet the needs of people who will benefit most from public access to broadband, such as students, low-income consumers, job seekers, and rural healthcare facilities; and
  • Providing for a means to connect to national backbone networks such as Internet2 and National LambdaRail.

"A Unified Community Anchor Network (UCAN) would be a major step forward in providing high-speed Internet access to the students, researchers, and faculty at our medium-sized public university," said Wendell Barbour, chairman of ACUTA's Legislative/Regulatory Affairs Committee and dean of the library at Longwood University in Farmville, VA. "High-speed access through the UCAN would help Longwood University and other institutions like ours reach out to provide vital educational and information services to the populations we serve, supporting economic development and job growth in our region."

The organization plans to hold a Webinar March 30 to discuss the plan among its 750 member institutions.

The Education and Libraries Networks Coalition (EdLiNC) said it is "delighted" with the FCC's calls to lift the current annual funding cap of E-Rate up from $2.25 billion to account for inflation. But the coalition of the major national public and private K-12 education associations, such as the Consortium for School Networking, also warned against expanding E-Rate to address needs outside of K-12 public and private schools and public libraries.

"Given the E-Rate program's current inability to meet existing demand, EdLiNC cannot support extending program eligibility to support new services, however meritorious," the organization said in a statement. "EdLiNC also cautions against making even a portion of the program's funds available on a competitive basis, as eligibility has always been determined based on need. The members of EdLiNC firmly believe that the program must be able to serve the needs of its intended beneficiaries adequately ... before extending or expanding support." The statement didn't specify what expansion, in particular, was of greatest concern.

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