New FCC rules to bring cheap broadband to schools faster

Got dark fiber near you? New E-Rate rules will mean that schools and libraries will finally be able to tap this resource for the good of their students and communities.

It wasn't long ago that a school budget administrator told me to forget about my plans to use dark fiber to connect the schools in our district with a wide area network and get on the Internet at drastically higher speeds with this unused fiber. "It's not eligible for E-Rate...not gonna happen." This was too bad, since the long-term savings, particularly if we partnered with the local libraries, could have been significant. New rules proposed Tuesday by the FCC, however, would make dark fiber reimbursable under E-Rate, rendering dark fiber suddenly cost-effective for schools and libraries.

The proposal will be presented in greater detail on Thursday at the FCC's Open Commission meeting, but for now, it's clear that this will play a critical role in advancing the National Broadband Plan. As described in Ars Technica,

Dark fiber is an interesting phenomenon—in part a by-product of the era of the late 1990s, in which many telecommunications companies rolled out far more fiber-optic cable than could be leased or sold as the high tech market collapsed in 2000.

The FCC hopes that schools that tap into this unused resource will, in turn, open their fast fiber connections to the cities, towns, and neighborhoods that they serve. In broadband parlance, these centers are referred to as "school spots," and they've sprung up around the country in interesting ways.

While not all rural communities have access to dark fiber, many do, often without even knowing it. Local services integrators that serve schools (these companies usually package some sort of site management/firewall solution with subcontracts to the most cost-effective local ISP) will usually be able to tell you if dark fiber exists in your area that could be purchased, leased, or otherwise co-opted in some way.

Similarly, full WAN implementations may take investment in new fiber, but dark fiber will often allow schools to have a single high-speed uplink to a major communications hub. Urban schools can also benefit from dark fiber, which may be much more plentiful in larger cities and may reduce Internet access costs quite substantially in the long term.

What has always intrigued me the most about the FCC's plans, however, are the ways in which schools and libraries are encouraged to better utilize their computing (and now, their high-speed Internet connections) resources more fully. Unfortunately, schools often have access to far bigger data pipes than consumers, but only need them 8 hours a day. The use of school spots, as described above, can open up these resources as much as 24 hours a day (by providing long-range wireless in populations centers, for example). The computers at our local libraries are always in use, any time the library is open. With that sort of demand, how could community members make use of 2 or 3 computer labs in a school after hours?

Partnerships with local businesses, senior centers, youth groups, and service organizations could offset the costs of extra infrastructure (also generally E-Rate eligible) and extended use hours in school buildings. The FCC obviously wants to get the most bang for its buck here and is hoping that school spots can be a stop gap (or even long-term solution) as the country struggles to bring broadband to more homes. A change in mindset in many towns where public and public-private partnerships are difficult to broker will need to go hand-in-hand with the new E-Rate rules to ensure that resources are stretched as far as they can be.