The organization argues that more than 60 eligible fiber-optic cable projects that sought funds from the E-Rate program have been unfairly denied by the Federal Communications Commission since 2017, a much higher number than in years past, and more than 30 schools have been waiting about a year for approval. The average wait is 240 days. That adds up to about 750,000 students who lack access to high-speed internet, Lapowsky reports.
The problems stem come from a 2014 order that shifted more E-rate funding to expanding broadband connectivity for schools and away from older communications systems like subsidized phone service. The Universal Service Administrative Co., an FCC arm that oversees E-Rate, began offering to pay up front for fiber-optic cables to very rural areas, and also offered to match state money put up to pay for construction. "But because USAC now fronts more of the costs, it's also more cautious about how that money gets spent," Lapowsky reports. "Now, USAC asks E-Rate applicants detailed questions about the precise cost of each fiber construction project, the route the fiber would take to get to the school, and other specifics that the small schools asking for these funds have struggled to answer. Often, the problems preventing students from getting online prove to be blandly bureaucratic."
One problem is that USAC wants to pay for only the fiber used by the school, but local internet service providers can't feasibly build out a fiber line to just one rural school without gaining other rural customers in the process, and it's very difficult for ISPs to distinguish between what part of the cost is being used to provide fiber to the school and what part is being used to provide service to area businesses and residents.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai acknowledged problems with E-Rate in April 2017, but little progress has been made. An FCC spokesperson told Wired that Pai has told the USAC "to take steps to make the processing of all E-rate applications—including, but not limited to, fiber applications—more efficient," Lapowsky reports.