Schools and libraries will soon be able to use E-Rate funds to purchase "dark fiber" lines, or unused fiber-optic connections, the Federal Communication Commission said on Sept. 22. As part of the FCC's national broadband strategy, the funding will help these institutions move from basic Internet access to broadband.
E-Rate, also known as the Schools and Libraries Program, reimburses institutions for computer and networking equipment as part of the FCC's Universal Fund, which subsidizes phone service for low-income residents and rural areas. The problem, uncovered by an audit by the Government Accountability Office last year, was that nearly all schools and libraries already had basic Internet access and the end-user equipment necessary to get online. But the simple fact remained that schools needed to move to broadband to take advantage of the innovative educational tools available, such as mobile learning. What they really needed was funding to buy and lay down fiber.
The FCC will be issuing an Order of the Commission over the next few days, which changes E-Rate rules to make it "easier for schools and libraries to get the highest speeds for the lowest prices by cutting red tape and increasing their options for broadband providers."
By being able to use E-Rate funds to buy unused fiber lines already in place across the country, schools and libraries can bypass more expensive options.
Dark fiber refers to the massive web of fiber-optics currently not being used in the United States. The telecommunications companies rolled these networks in the 1990s in anticipation of demand that never materialized when the high-tech market collapsed in 2000. Since then, the giant telecoms have been sitting on miles of cable that have not been leased or sold. Many rural areas that thought they were too far off the grid for broadband may actually have dark fiber nearby.
With the declining prices, it's more practical to buy fiber-optics cable wholesale rather than leasing or renting. With E-Rate funds, schools and libraries can roll out broadband networks at a fraction of the cost that would benefit the entire community.
A big component of the FCC plan is to establish schools and libraries as 1G-bps hubs, or "School Spots," for the communities they serve. This can take many forms, such as by letting the community use the computer labs after the students have gone home, setting up wireless networks for the community or providing various e-learning modules. Opening up fast fiber connections is a quick and effective way to expand broadband service into cities, towns and neighborhoods.
The national broadband plan is a series of initiatives to make broadband widely accessible in the United States. Even though there were approximately 200 million Americans with broadband in 2009, there are still more than 100 million without. Noting all the benefits of having broadband in health care, education and public safety, the FCC has announced various projects and policy changes to spur broadband investment and implementation.
The FCC is expected to provide more information regarding the E-Rate policy at the Open Commission meeting scheduled for Sept. 23. It will also vote on the Order for "white spaces" broadband.