As more details of the FCC's National Broadband Plan emerge, it looks as though the antiquated E-rate rules that prevent many schools from sharing their Internet access with their communities will be changing. E-Rate, a program that subsidizes large percentages of Internet access for schools and libraries in poor and rural communities, is slated for "tweaking" under the plan.
As described on ABCNews.com,
The Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday to let schools that get money from the federal E-Rate program offer community members use of their Internet connections.
The program, which also funds Internet access in libraries, had required schools to use the Web connections only for educational purposes. But that meant they went largely unused at night, over weekends and during breaks.
This brings up an interesting question, though: The Internet may be usable by the community, but who will pay to keep schools open for the community to access the resources? Depending upon how the rules actually get rewritten, this leaves open one heck of a possibility. As powerful WiFi transmission gets cheaper, schools could become neighborhood hotspots in under-served communities. They could also become hubs to which community centers could link via fiber or copper connections, providing free Internet access to YMCAs, senior centers, and housing projects.
Will the FCC build in some rules to prevent this really direct benefit to communities from the high-speed access that E-Rate makes affordable at many schools? Probably. However, allowing schools and communities to be really creative in the way they use their E-Rate-funded broadband could put the country much closer to the ambitious goals outlined by the FCC.