FCC Chairman Wheeler announced in a recent FCC blog post that the agency will be considering another E-Rate reform item during the agency’s next open meeting on December 11. This latest proposal is expected to increase the annual E-rate spending cap by $1.5 billion and include several changes to the program intended to accelerate broadband deployment to schools and libraries in rural areas in order to close a perceived "Rural Fiber Gap."
The Chairman’s latest proposal is intended to close what he believes to be a significant “digital divide” between urban and rural areas’ access to broadband. Citing estimates of more than 15 million American homes without access to “entry-level” broadband and 41% of rural schools without access to any high-speed connection, Wheeler asserts that this latest proposal will close this digital divide by modernizing the E-rate program. As we outlined in an earlier DWT E-rate blog post, there may be good reason to be skeptical of the size of such a rural-urban digital (broadband) divide.
But putting aside the precise scope of such a divide, it’s clear that the politics surrounding this issue present a basis for Chairman Wheeler to push forward with proposed changes that will increase the size of the overall program and impose additional operational challenges on service providers. Among the changes expected in this item is a proposal that would permit schools to be reimbursed for building their own fiber if service providers do not build broadband connections. Less clear is whether the proposal will include a cap on the amount of funds available for such infrastructure costs, as some broadband providers have suggested. In addition, the item will likely include a mandate upon recipients of Connect America Fund support to bid to serve schools in the area subject to such support. Additional details will hopefully be available in the coming weeks in advance of the FCC’s anticipated adoption of this item on December 11.