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Video Technology Providers Back FCC E-Rate Update

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The Federal Communications Commission is proposing to update the “E-Rate Program,” which provides schools and libraries with funding for internet access, thereby supporting the “transformation”—seen over the last five years—of distance learning in which students are using mobile devices to access educational videos.

On Aug. 20, the FCC posted a Federal Register notice—"Modernizing the E-Rate Program for Schools and Libraries"—that says “high-capacity broadband is also expanding the boundaries of our schools by allowing for interactive and collaborative distance learning applications, providing all students, from rural communities to inner cities, access to high-quality courses and expert instruction.”

The E-Rate Program has been instrumental in ensuring schools and libraries have the connectivity necessary to enable students and library patrons to participate in the digital world, according to the FCC.

When Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (PL 104-104) authorizing the creation of the E-Rate Program—which was formally known as the schools and libraries universal service support mechanism—only 14 percent of classrooms had access to the Internet and about 75 percent of schools with internet access used dial-up, according to the FCC.

By 2005, nearly all schools had access to the internet, and 94 percent of all instructional classrooms had internet access. Similarly, by 2006, nearly all public libraries were connected to the internet, and 98 percent of them offered public internet access, the FCC says.

That timeline is supported by producers of products that are used by schools and libraries for distance learning and web streaming.

During the last five years there has been a major transformation in online education, said Tom Mingo, vice president of sales for Vaddio, which produces distance-learning technologies such as the AutoTrak 2.0. Distance education used to take place in classrooms and schools, primarily in higher education, but over the last five years distance education has migrated towards capturing lectures and making them available on demand for streaming to mobile devices, he said.

The reason for that, in part, is students have devices that enable them to view that content and watch it on their own time, whether it be a streamed live event or a video on demand, Mingo said.

That transformation in online education is why schools need to have high-capacity broadband connectivity, the FCC says. High-capacity internet access “combined with cutting-edge educational tools and content, is transforming learning by providing customized teaching opportunities, giving students and teachers access to interactive content,” the proposed rule says.

In addition, high-capacity connections in the nation’s libraries are essential for those facilities to remain a vital community learning resource, said Steve Israelsky, the vice president of product management and marketing for Tightrope Media Systems, which produces the Cablecast SX LE that enables education channels to webstream their productions.

Libraries have so much documentary and instructional programming now available online that was once only available on tape or DVD, according to Israelsky. Those products are now digital files, he said. “The files can be large, but with a high-speed connection they are instantly available for download or through streaming,” he added.

The proposed rule provides examples of libraries that are streaming video. It says, “In Idaho, for example, the state agency’s Libraries Linking Idaho database portal, available in all Idaho libraries, provides essential resources to library patrons such as an online video encyclopedia and a program to provide tools for test preparation and skill-building,” it says.

It also points to “the Chicago Public Library’s YOUMedia and The Labs at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh [which] offer young people an opportunity to produce rich, multi-media products using the latest technology tools while connecting these learning experiences directly back to school and careers."

Because the proposed rule seeks to update the program to ensure “schools and libraries have affordable access to 21st Century broadband that support digital learning,” the FCC is seeking comments on whether the agency should consider other communications services for those institutions, as well as what performance measures to should be used to monitor the E-Rate Program.

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