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I was talking to my friend Joshua Williams (@JSW_EdTech) about our favorite discussion topic: E-Rate. I’ve written about E-Rate’s slow death and how it needs to be modernized. One of the things that Joshua mentioned to me is a recent speech from Commissioner Ajit Pai in front of the FCC. The short, short version of this speech is that the esteemed commissioner doesn’t want to increase the pool of money paid from the Universal Service Fund (USF) into E-Rate. Instead, he wants to do away with “wasteful” services like wireline telephones and web hosting. Naturally, when I read this my reaction was a bit pointed.
Commissioner Pai has his heart in the right place. His staff gave him some very good notes about his interviews with school officials. But he’s missed the boat completely about the “waste” in the program and how to address it. His idea of reforming the program won’t come close to fixing the problems inherent in the system.
Let’s look at the phone portion for moment. Commissioner Pai says that E-Rate spends $600 million per year on funding wireline telephone services. That is a pretty big number. He says that the money we sink into phone services should go to broadband connections instead. Because the problems in schools aren’t decaying phone systems or lack of wireless or even old architecture. It’s faster Internet. Never mind that broadband circuits are part of the always-funded Priority One pool of money. Or that getting the equipment required to turn up the circuit is part of Priority Two. No, the way to fix the problem is to stop paying for phones.
Commissioner Pai obviously emails and texts the principals and receptionists at his children’s schools. He must have instant messaging communications with them regularly. Who in their right mind would call a school? Oh, right. Think of all the reasons that you might want to call a school. My child forget their sweater. I’m picking them up early for a doctor’s appointment. The list is virtually endless. There are so many reasons to call a school. Telling the school that you’re no longer paying for phone service is likely to get your yelled at. Or run out of town on a rail.
What about newer phone technologies? Services that might work better with those fast broadband connections that Commissioner Pai is suggesting are sorely needed? What about SIP trunking? It seems like a no-brainer to me. Take some of the voice service money and earmark it for new broadband connections. However, it can only be used for a faster broadband connection if the telephone service is converted to a SIP trunk. That’s a brilliant idea that would redirect the funding where it’s needed.
Sure, it’s likely going to require an upgrade of phone gear to support SIP and VoIP in general. Yes, some rural phone companies are going to be forced to upgrade their circuits to support SIP. But given that the major telecom companies have already petitioned the FCC to do away with wireline copper services in favor of VoIP, it seems that the phone companies would be on board with this. It fixes many of the problems while still preserving the need for voice communications to the schools.
This is a win for the E-Rate integrators that are being targeted by Commissioner Pai’s statement that it’s too difficult to fill out E-Rate paperwork. Those same integrators will be needed to take legacy phone systems and drag them kicking and screaming into the modern era. This kind of expertise is what E-Rate should be paying for. It’s the kind of specialized knowledge that school IT departments shouldn’t need to have on staff.
I spent a large part of my career implementing voice systems for education. Many times I wondered why we would hook up a state-of-the-art CallManager to a cluster of analog voice lines. The answer was almost always about money. SIP was expensive. SIP required a faster circuit. Analog was cheap. It was available. It was easy.
Now schools have to deal with the real possibility of losing funding for E-Rate voice service because one of the commissioners thinks that no one uses voice any more. I say we should take the money he wants to save and reinvest it into modernizing phone systems for all E-Rate eligible schools. Doing so would go a long way toward removing the increasing maintenance costs for legacy phone systems as well as retiring circuits that require constant attention. That would increase the pool of available money in future funding years. The answer isn’t to kill programs. It’s to figure out why they cost so much and find ways to make them more efficient. And if you don’t think that’s what’s needed Commissioner Pai, give me a call. I still have a working phone.