Educators like the FCC's new rural broadband fund proposal

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Education leaders are applauding the Federal Communications Commission for on Thursday proposing a new fund that will continue efforts to bring modern broadband service to rural communities. But they also expressed concerns over a separate proposal to limit funding for several other broadband initiatives.

As part of the Universal Service Program, the FCC’s proposed Rural Digital Opportunity Fund would allocate $20.4 million to subsidize broadband infrastructure projects in areas where it is not yet widely available, and in many ways is a continuation of the Connect America Fund, which is set to expire in 2020.

If adopted, the new proposal will raise the bar for rural broadband deployment, making more areas eligible for support, requiring faster service speeds than those laid out in the CAF and reducing the overall service cost.

Candice Dodson, director of State Educational Technology Directors Association, told EdScoop that her organization welcomes the Commission’s decision to focus on the future of the Universal Service Fund, as it has proven its value for more than two decades. She also says it could prove essential for helping to close the nation’s “homework gap,” the disparity between students with access to the internet and digital technology outside of schools and those who don’t have access.

“We think this particular proposal is good,” said Keith Krueger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking.

By ensuring rural areas have access to broadband services, students in those communities are expected to be able to connect with educational resources at home.

“Ironically it comes at the exactly the same time that the chairman has a separate proposal to create a new overall cap on the Universal Service Program, which we think could derail some of what he is talking about here,” Krueger said.

In May, the FCC proposed that funding for the Universal Service Program — which houses several broadband initiatives for rural communities, schools, and health services — be capped in order to promote greater fiscal responsibility.

However, limiting the overall funding of the USP may end up pitting the different funds, like the E-Rate program for schools and the Rural Health Care program, against each other, Krueger said.

Currently, all of the programs under USP have caps or target levels for their funding, but placing an additional cap on USP itself, Krueger explained, would potentially cause some of these programs to run out of funds prematurely if the overall threshold for USP was already reached.

“We hope the chairman understands that his separate plans to establish a new aggregate USF cap will completely undermine the vision described in this rulemaking,” Dodson said.

The FCC is currently seeking public comment on both the proposed Rural Digital Opportunity Fund and the USP funding cap.