The Federal Communications Commission voted unanimously on Friday to modernize its federal E-Rate program, which provides funding for schools and libraries to connect to the Internet.
It's the first comprehensive overhaul of the program since it was established in 1997. E-Rate was created to give rebates to schools seeking to get connected to the Internet. The program's new goals will focus on increasing broadband capacity in classrooms, reducing costs and streamlining its administrative process.
Officials with the FCC said it's necessary to improve Internet access in order to make better use of online learning opportunities.
"What we need to do is move this program from connectivity to increasing capacity and get schools the Internet — both to their doors and to their classrooms — that they need in order to take advantage of what's going on in digital learning," said Michael Steffen, director of digital learning at the FCC.
Friday's vote was the first step in the process. It now moves into a public comment period, which will last into September in order to give time for schools to provide input.
The FCC still has to determine its specific targets for the program, including how it will finance the upgrade. Last year, administrators received funding requests totaling nearly $5 billion, which is about twice the amount budgeted for the program.
Steffen said that it's too early to say when the final plan will go into effect, but he said it's necessary to act quickly in order to keep U.S. students from falling further behind other countries.
“These needs are important," Steffen said. "We know that our country’s international competitiveness demands getting this done. There are lots of other countries moving ahead and so we’re going to try to move quickly.”
There's also a political reason to speed up the process. Last month, President Obama announced a new initiative designed to bring high-speed broadband and wireless Internet access to 99 percent of students within five years. He called on the FCC to modernize E-Rate to meet that goal.
President Obama applauded the results of the vote.
"Today, the Federal Communications Commission took a first, important step toward realizing our vision of making 21st century classrooms available to every student in America," he said in a statement.