THE BLOG
09/11/2013 12:06 pm ET | Updated Nov 11, 2013

Interstates and E-rates

The Labor Day weekend is fast disappearing in my memory's rear view window, but the traffic experience of a three-mile stretch of barely moving vehicles on I-95 is still vivid. As I crawled through this traffic jam, I couldn't help but draw parallels between the interstate highway system and technology infrastructure in schools; while both underwent major transformations in the 1990s and neither fully meet current demand, major strides have been made to upgrade the former, while the latter is stuck in a previous century.

As I rolled down my window and watched traffic creep along, I wondered what it would be like if interstates still operated on one- or two-lane roads. Millions of technologically advanced vehicles designed to optimize fuel usage and energy output would be unable to achieve anywhere near their potential for their owners. The result would be even more countless hours of lost productivity and limited economic growth, but that's exactly what the nation's teachers and student face every day when they try to access the latest educational opportunities via the internet.

Thankfully, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is currently considering ways to expand and modernize the E-rate program -- the federal government's program for connecting the nation's schools and libraries to the Internet -- and is accepting public comments about how to do so. The proposed changes to the E-rate program are not only the first since the E-rate's inception in 1996, they are the best chance the nation has to provide faster Internet connections to the nation's classrooms, schools, and libraries. With only one week left until comments are due to the FCC on September 16, everyone should take the time to visit www.99in5.org and urge the FCC to modernize and expand this critical program.

Seventeen years ago, when the Republican-led U.S. Congress and a Democratic president passed the sweeping Telecommunications Act of 1996, they established a Universal Service Fund (USF) to subsidize establishing Internet connections to vitally needed areas. One of the designated uses was to connect schools and libraries with assistance from a newly created education program known as E-rate. The initial congressional intent worked; most schools and libraries are now connected. But just as two-lane roads no longer meet the nation's transportation needs, modern education demands require much faster connections for each school.

Today, the continuous demand for all students and faculty to access the Internet equates to the same sort of congestion-based traffic jam I experienced over Labor Day weekend. The FCC reports that only 10 percent of schools currently have adequate connectivity to handle today's educational needs, yet each year millions more students are issued Internet-access devices as a fundamental requirement for modern education.

The last lesson from my post-Labor Day thoughts is simple yet the most important: E-rate expansion requires more funds. When Republican President Dwight Eisenhower pushed hard with a Democratic congress to launch the 1956 National Interstate and Defense Highways Act, he committed to raising the billions of dollars necessary for this crucial investment that has led to major economic growth. Likewise, the FCC's current E-rate program will require more funding in order to adequately connect 99 percent of America's students to high-speed broadband in their schools and libraries within the next five years. Last year, E-rate allocated $2.3 billion, but the applications requested more than double this amount.

"Some argue that the FCC should simplify the cumbersome application process. Others argue that the program should be modernized to focus on broadband and phase out support for telephone service. The FCC should look at all options; that is why the Congress gave it this authority."

Just as federal and state governments faced increased transportation demands in the 20th century, they must now face two compelling truths in that of the 21st. The nation's information-age economy demands high-speed Internet access for its schools and students. And this will not happen without more funding for E-rate. Failure to act now will leave millions of students left idling on their economic roads to success. To ensure that all students reach their education destination, it is imperative that the United States meet the goal of connecting 99 percent of the nation's students with high-speed broadband in their schools and libraries within the next five years.

To voice your support for modernizing and expanding the E-rate program, visit www.99in5.org.