In an open letter dated Wednesday, May 21, 2014 to Federal Communications Commission (F.C.C.) Chairman Tom Wheeler and Commissioners Mignon Clyburn, Michael O'Reilly, Jessica Rosenworcel, and Ajit Pai, over 100 members of the Urban Libraries Council (U.L.C.) called on the F.C.C. “to level the E-rate playing field to enhance public libraries’ access to funds that will help provide a digital future for all Americans,” as the U.L.C. stated in a press release dated Thursday, May 22, 2014.
In a letter to the FCC, more than 100 public library systems outlined a case for reform of the E-rate program to meet library needs and ensure proportional distribution of available funds. E-rate is the FCC legislative mandate, established in 1996, to help pay for certain telecommunications and broadband services in libraries and schools. Last year, the FCC launched an overhaul of the E-rate program to address current needs in libraries and schools.
Over its 17-year history, libraries have received only about $60 to $70 million annually, which represents a cumulative shortfall of $4 billion if E-rate had been indexed to inflation and funds had been distributed proportionally between school and library buildings, the letter argues.
"While there is nothing in the statute or regulations that suggest that the status of public libraries is inferior to schools, and no one commenting in the pending E-rate proceeding has supported this idea, public libraries and the citizens they serve are not being equally considered," wrote the library executives.
The letter calls for three fixes to the E-rate program that address public libraries:
1. Proportional distribution of funding to library buildings that parallels distribution of funding to school buildings
2. Creation of a formula for prioritizing funding that considers the income of the user group and the number of daily users of the library building
3. Revisions to E-rate administration to give libraries and schools access to more cost-effective contracts for technology and digital services including "whole networks" to meet broadband needs.
In recommending the changes, library leaders emphasized that any changes to E-rate priorities and funding administration should not pit ‘urban against rural or library against school.’
"Instead, this is an opportunity to ensure that the playing field is leveled for all simultaneously," they wrote.
In the 17-years since the E-rate was created, public libraries have become the most important and often only free public Internet access point for after-school children, the 90 million adults who are not in the workforce and are unable to access the Internet at work, and the estimated 40 percent of Americans who don't have broadband access at home. Today, no other institutions rival the significance of public libraries in the civic landscape for adults and for children during the many days and hours when school is not in session.
The Urban Libraries Council has been working closely with its member libraries and other organizations representing libraries to raise awareness of the importance of E-rate funds to public libraries and to develop recommendations for modernizing the program to meet current and future digital needs.
"The discussions and research around modernizing the E-rate has helped shape libraries' thinking about the digital future of all communities," said Susan Benton, C.E.O. of the U.L.C. "It has become clear that a new vision for the E-rate program must recognize the important role libraries now play in meeting community technology needs and delivering education for all using the best available technology resources."
In a separate statement, the U.L.C. announced, “A team of leading telecommunications lawyers in Washington, DC, is working with the… ULC… to develop recommendations for changing the federal E-Rate program so that more libraries receive more discounts on telephone and internet costs.”
E-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 F.C.C., is now one of the attorneys advising the U.L.C. on how to adjust the program to fit a shifting digital landscape. “The internet has changed, and needs have changed,” Hundt said. “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.
Ms. Benton said that U.L.C. 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 B.Y.O.D. (bring your own device) access, and high speed access to the universe of information from anywhere, at any time, for everyone.
The U.L.C. solicited input from its members for recommendations and new provisions the library executives would like to see represented in the U.L.C. filing. In addition, the U.L.C. is also offered a session on E-Rate and E-Books at its Partners Conference this last November.
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, 2013 and drafted a second submission that incorporates member library recommendations for the November 8, 2013 filing.
Karen Kornbluh, nationally recognized communications expert and former ambassador to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, is serving 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 have reached 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, Maryland, said he is pleased to be working closely with the U.L.C. to adjust a program he once launched. “There’s not a more proactive group of adults in the world than librarians,” he said.
To put the U.L.C’s activities in context, the F.C.C. designated an independent, not-for-profit corporation, the Universal Service Administrative Company (U.S.A.C.), as the administrator of universal service. The Schools and Libraries (E-Rate) Program provides discounts to eligible schools and public libraries that qualify for reduced rates.
Authority is ultimately derived from Section 254 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, Pub. LA. No. 104-104, 110 Stat. 56 (1996). Universal Service is the principle that all Americans should have access to a baseline level of telecommunications services.
It is the cornerstone of the Communications Act of 1934, which established universal service in legislation and also created the F.C.C. Since the law’s passage, universal service policies have helped make telephone service ubiquitous, even in rural areas.
The 1996 law expanded the scope of Universal Service to include greater access at affordable prices to both telecommunications and advanced services, including high-speed Internet, for all consumers. Most importantly, the 1996 law set forth explicit goals to guide the implementation of Universal Service policies.
The goals were (1) the promotion of what the U.S.A.C. calls “the availability of quality services at just, reasonable, and affordable rates;” (2) increased access to advanced telecom services throughout the U.S.; (3) increase “the availability of such services to all consumers, including those in low income, rural, insular, and high cost areas at rates that are reasonably comparable to those charged in urban areas;” (4) increased access to telecom and advanced services in schools, libraries, and rural healthcare facilities; and (5) to provide “equitable and non-discriminatory contributions from all providers of telecommunications services to the fund supporting universal service programs.” Telecommunications companies contribute money, based on earned revenue, into the Universal Service Fund (U.S.F.) to fulfill the goals of Universal Service.
Under authority of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the F.C.C. put the U.S.A.C. in charge of collecting and distributing Universal Service Funds. In 2012, Universal Service disbursements totaled $8,700,000,000.
The Schools and Libraries Program, commonly known as the E-rate Program, is one of four Universal Service Programs. The U.S.A.C. states, “It provides support to eligible schools and libraries that qualify for reduced rates for telecommunications, telecommunications services, Internet access, internal connections, and basic maintenance of internal connections.” In 2012, this program provided over $2,220,000,000.