While the announcement was somewhat overshadowed by the continuing NSA snooping controversy(ies), President Obama this week announced a new initiative aimed at shoring up broadband connectivity at the nation's schools. According to a White House press release
, the new initiative calls on the FCC to modernize and leverage its existing E-Rate program to help bring faster broadband services to schools within five years.
Unfortunately for the President, (or more accurately, kids) that's more easily said than done, given our longstanding unwillingness to accurately track the spending for just these kinds of programs.
The E-Rate system, which you pay into via Universal Service Fund (USF
) fees, is designed to deliver broadband and technology services to the nation's schools and libraries. Instead, like the larger USF, it's more like a slush fund, where money paid in frequently isn't tracked by the government, and spending accountability is minimal to non-existent. As you might expect, this has traditionally resulted in oodles of fraud
by both carriers and schools.
At various times, between 26% and 40% of USF funds have been poured into E-Rate, and the program has doled out more than $25 billion since its inception in 1998. The program has great potential and occasionally great successes, yet it js repeatedly marred by the fact the FCC historically has not done a good job tracking spending.
For years now, the General Accounting Office (GAO) has issued an endless flood of reports on how the FCC should actually pay attention, and for just as many years the FCC has insisted they'd get right on that. While the fact that many areas have received help shouldn't be overlooked, the program's oversight failures are clear. A report from 2009 found that 60% of U.S. libraries lacked the bandwidth to support visitors
. That's fairly staggering given the billions thrown at this program.
So what is Obama proposing? Under the new ConnectED program
(pdf), the President wants the FCC to ensure that 99% of the country's kids can access speeds of 100 Mbps within five years. The details on how we are to achieve this technically are nonexistent in the White House materials. There's also no specification of how many schools can currently get
It's entirely possible this is another one of those show pony initiatives where the government pretends to be fixing a problem that may already be close to being accomplished by local communities without the FCC's belated help. Recall Genachowski's "impressive" goal
of promising 100 Mbps to 100 Million, something the cable industry was accomplishing through DOCSIS 3.0 updates without Uncle Sam lifting a finger.
The President is quick to point out that this initiative "does not require Congressional action," but it will require several billion dollars pulled from the E-Rate program to fund the completely non-specific technical improvements. However, since nobody seems to want to correctly reform E-Rate contributions to ensure money is being spent properly, and the government isn't getting specific on how they plan to magically spawn faster connections in hundreds if not thousands of communities, you might not want to hold your breath on this initiative doing a whole lot more than earning PR brownie points.
It's rather amusing, and I'm sure that it will go without reporting, that the White House chose to announce this initiative in North Carolina, a state so beholden to incumbent broadband providers that it allowed them to write and lobby for laws ensuring nobody in state will see next-generation speeds anytime soon
. Said law blocks towns and cities from deciding fully for themselves how and where to wire themselves for service, all so Time Warner Cable can keep prices high and won't have to work too hard.
Were Obama serious about improving school broadband, a good first step would have been preventing incumbent, anti-competitive duopolists from writing laws intended to keep states in the broadband dark ages. Similarly, hiring an FCC boss with the independence, insight and courage to tackle a lack of competition, instead of just another lobbyist
, would have done more for schools than fifty vague "ConnectED" initiatives.