As the Lawrence school district prepares to launch a multimillion-dollar plan to upgrade wireless technology in all of its buildings and classrooms, federal officials are planning to overhaul a national tech-funding program, potentially reducing the district's costs.
The program, known as E-rate, is the federal government's largest education technology program. Financed through the Universal Service Fund fee that appears on telephone bills, it's currently used to subsidize the cost of Internet access and telephone service for the nation's schools and libraries
But on Friday, the Federal Communications Commission announced that it wants to revamp that program — the first such overhaul since it was established in 1997 — by putting more emphasis on building broadband capacity. That's the very thing that the Lawrence district is trying to do.
“We're excited that the FCC is looking at modernizing the e-rate program,” said Melinda Stanley, the E-rate coordinator for Kansas schools at the State Department of Education.
“With the current E-rate rules, there is very little money left for infrastructure,” Stanley said, referring to equipment such as routers, switches and servers that distribute wireless signals on a network. “There's such a big demand for basic broadband service, there's no money left in 2014 for (infrastructure).”
In April, voters in the Lawrence approved a $92.5 million school bond issue, which includes $6.5 million for technology upgrades to the district's wireless network.
What isn't known yet about the proposed federal changes, Stanley said, is whether Congress will eventually offer more funding through the program, which currently is capped at $2.25 billion a year, or if the changes will only mean reallocating money for different purposes.
According to federal data, the Lawrence school district qualifies for a 63 percent subsidy on its Internet and telecommunications bills through the E-rate program. In fiscal year 2013, that subsidy totaled $194,050. The largest portion of that, $158,004, covered Internet access through cable provider Knology.
When the E-rate program began, according to the FCC, only about 14 percent of classrooms in the United States had Internet access. Today, about 97 percent of schools and libraries are connected, but the agency says the needs of schools and libraries have changed.
A 2010 survey of E-rate applicants showed that half had slower connection speeds than the average American home, the FCC said.
Lawrence school district officials say the average connection speed of computers in the district is about 340 megabits per second, significantly faster than the average home connection. But plans call for greatly expanding the capacity so that more students and teachers can be on the network at once.