On December 3, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released its long-awaited E-Rate order, making permanent the Category 2 budget system that was piloted in the 2014 modernization of the federal program. On balance, the new order reflects the FCC’s ongoing efforts to make the application process less burdensome, which the American Library Association (ALA) has advocated for many times.
Since its inception in 1998, E-Rate, also known as the Schools and Libraries Universal Service Support Mechanism, has provided discounts on advanced telecommunications services to public libraries and K–12 schools. The program covers internet access (Category 1) and much of the internal wiring and equipment (Category 2) necessary for libraries to deliver important services, such as fee-free Wi-Fi access, tech-infused storytimes, and high-definition videoconferencing.
ALA has steered the evolution of E-Rate to meet the growing demand for internet-based services in libraries, from the program’s beginning through its modernization in 2014. Since then, ALA has filed numerous rounds of comments and secured meetings with FCC staff and commissioners on behalf of the nation’s libraries, focusing on how the nascent Category 2 budget system is working. For example, the per-square-foot formula (currently $2.45, and $5.32 for certain urban libraries) has made funding predictable and, for many libraries, available for the first time in years.
Changes for 2021
ALA’s Public Policy and Advocacy Office (PPAO) has prepared a summary detailing key changes to E-Rate’s Category 2. In order to allow for adequate time for the application system and forms to be updated to reflect the rule changes, the FCC opted to make the upcoming 2020 funding year a bridge year, which means the changes will not go into effect until 2021. For 2020, applicants will continue as they have during the pilot period, and the FCC will provide a 20% increase to applicants to cover the bridge year.
A number of ALA’s recommendations were adopted in the final order, which includes changes intended to encourage more libraries to apply for their share of the $4.15 billion program. Changes that will take effect in the 2021 funding year include:
- The funding floor will increase from the initial $9,200 to $25,000, which should make a real difference for small libraries deciding whether to take on the application process.
- There will be a single square-foot formula of $4.50 for all libraries—a significant improvement for small libraries, but short of the $6 that ALA had endorsed for larger libraries.
- The five-year budget cycle will be adjusted for inflation at the start of each five-year period rather than every year.
- The budget will be made at the library system (and school district) level instead of at the individual library branch.
In addition to PPAO, member leaders on ALA’s E-Rate Task Force and others contributed to policy formation on this issue. ALA Senior Policy Fellow Bob Bocher has aided E-Rate policy development both for ALA and for his home state of Wisconsin through his work with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. The FCC appointed Bocher to the board of the Schools and Libraries Committee of Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC), which administers the E-Rate program. Bocher’s second term on the USAC board is ending, and ALA has recommended the FCC appoint Amber Gregory, current coordinator of E-Rate services with Arkansas State Library and chair of the E-Rate Task Force, to succeed him.
As libraries continually make upgrades to meet the ever-increasing demands on their Wi-Fi, ALA is working with federal regulators and local libraries to ensure the E-Rate program works. For more information about the E-Rate program, visit USAC’s website. To learn more about how to apply for E-Rate funding for your library, contact your state’s E-Rate coordinator.