October 30th, 2013

A team of leading telecommunications lawyers in Washington, D.C., is working with the Urban Libraries Council (ULC) to develop recommendations for changing the federal E-Rate program so that more libraries receive more discounts on telephone and internet costs.

FCCE-Rate was launched in 1997 to provide schools and libraries with Internet access and internal network connections. It needs to be re-imagined in the broadband era, where high speed data plus wi-fi networking is the new normal. Furthermore, libraries have been hampered in their ability to access E-Rate money, even as their role as the number one public internet access point in the social landscape has continued to grow in importance.

Reed Hundt, who developed E-Rate as chair of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, is now one of the attorneys advising ULC on how to adjust the program to fit a shifting digital landscape. “The internet has changed, and needs have changed,” Hundt said in a recent conversation. “When we invented this program, it was 1997; the vision was desktop computers in carrels. Period. Times have changed and our imagination of what broadband can provide for society needs to change.”

With the FCC taking comments for possible rule changes, Hundt stressed four points:

  1. E-Rate’s structure should reflect the fact that libraries have become the No. 1 source for public internet access in the country, particularly for adults who do not have home computers or lack high speed internet connectivity.
  2. E-Rate priorities should recognize that providing access increasingly means supplying the wi-fi needed in a “bring your own device” environment.
  3. The E-Rate application process should be simplified and clarified so that all libraries, big and small, can seek support for internet access without paying more for applying than they get in return from the FCC.
  4. Libraries can be much more efficient in how they obtain funds and also in their contracting to outside firms providing connectivity.

Susan Benton, CEO of ULC, said that ULC envisions a new national network architecture for public internet access that ensures all citizens can productively engage in the 21st century knowledge economy. This means fiber to the building, wi-fi networks for byod access, and high speed access to the universe of information from anywhere, at any time, for everyone.

ULC is now soliciting input from its members for recommendations and new provisions the library leaders would like to see represented in the ULC filing. ULC is also planning a session on E-Rate and E-Books at its Partners Conference in November.

E-Rate funds are collected from all Americans by the FCC and distributed by an independent non-profit administrator. The monies go variously to telecommunications, telecommunication services, internet access, internal connections and basic maintenance of internal connections. Grants are weighted according to the wealth of particular geographies.

The FCC posted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking asking organizations and individuals to comment and make suggestions for improving E-Rate. ULC filed an initial submission September 16, and is drafting a second submission that incorporates member library recommendations for a November 8 filing

Karen Kornbluh, nationally recognized communications expert and former ambassador to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, will serve as an adviser to ULC. She helped pass the E-Rate into law. The prominent law firm Skadden Arps is serving as counsel pro bono.  

ULC and its team of senior advisors will reach out to officials at the FCC, as well as the American and Public Library Associations, the Digital Public Library of America and other key stakeholder organizations.

Hundt, whose sister runs a library branch in Rockville, MD, said he is pleased to be working closely with ULC to adjust a program he once launched. “There’s not a more proactive group of adults in the world than librarians,” he said.