E-rate and Universal Service

E-rate is the popular name for a far-sighted extension of Universal Service, as authorized by Congress in the Telecommunications Act of 1996. This federal initiative provides discounts to public libraries and to public and private K-12 schools on telecommunications services, Internet access, and some closely related costs, such as inside wiring. The discounts range from 20% to 90% with the deepest discounts going to those communities with the greatest need based upon the local eligibility levels for participation in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP).

The E-rate has played a pivotal role in helping libraries connect their users to the Internet. Today, more than 95% of our nation's libraries offer Internet access to the public. This is compared to 1996, when 28% of library systems that offered public access to the Internet in at least one branch. With more than $350 million in discounts since 1998, the E-rate has helped change the public library's information technology landscape.

Summary of Positions

  • ALA supports policies that maintain robust and stable funding levels for the E-rate program, a significant source of support for library technology needs.
  • ALA does not support any premature E-rate program changes while the overall impacts of the 2014 E-rate modernization are assessed.
  • ALA endorses continued efforts of the FCC to make the E-rate application process and other E-rate processes fast, simple, and efficient.
  • ALA endorses the fiber rules in the E-rate modernization that encourage applications to pursue higher capacity broadband and increase competition to address the lack of availability and affordability of broadband services for libraries.
  • ALA endorses legislation and policies that aim to improve access to the E-rate program and empower libraries to provide online opportunities for all Americans.ErateIcon400x400

The Issue

"Universal Service" refers to the principle that all people in the United States should have access to advanced communications services. At one time, that meant having access to telephone services. As the internet has become central to the way we live and work, this principle now includes access to internet services. In practice, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 requires telecommunications companies to contribute money to the federal Universal Service Fund. This fund, administered by the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC) and overseen by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), supports programs that subsidize internet connections for 1) people with low incomes, 2) people who live in remote and rural areas, and 3) public libraries and K-12 schools.

E-rate, also known as the Universal Services Schools and Libraries support mechanism, is the program that provides discounts to public libraries as well as K-12 schools on telecommunications services, internet access, Wi-Fi equipment, and some closely related costs like internal cabling. E-rate has played a pivotal role in helping libraries connect their users to the Internet. In 2014, the FCC adopted two sweeping orders to modernize the E-rate program. In addition to raising the program's annual spending cap to $3.9 billion, the FCC approved regulations prioritizing broadband and Wi-Fi and encouraging competition in the marketplace by allowing support for libraries to build their own networks.

Initial feedback from the library community indicates changes to the E-rate program are having a positive impact, especially in increasing broadband capacity and Wi-Fi access. But not all libraries have yet benefited from the new provisions, owing to difficulties in the application process, delays in administration, and lack of awareness. Policy makers in the FCC, Congress, the White House, U.S. Department of Commerce, and elsewhere are urged to preserve and strengthen the E-rate program, empowering libraries and schools to provide online opportunities for all Americans, whether in urban, suburban, rural, or tribal areas.

Recent Advocacy

Brief2018Erate
January 2018: Leveraging E-rate to Provide Opportunity
The work of libraries demands robust and reasonably-priced internet connectivity.
  • FAQ for Libraries: FCC Cybersecurity Pilot Program (June 2024)
  • Filing to FCC regarding Learn Without Limits, propose E-rate expansion (January 2024)
  • Coalition letter supporting Carla Wade's nomination to the Universal Service Administration Company's Board of Directors (October 23, 2023)
  • Filing to FCC in support of previous Tribal E-rate rulemaking (October 23, 2023)
  • Filing to FCC in support of proposed rulemaking to increase E-rate participation in Tribal libraries (September 2023)
  • Filing to FCC reiterating support for changes to the E-rate program to increase rural and Tribal participation (May 23, 2023)
  • Filing to FCC recommending changes to the E-Rate program to increase rural and Tribal participation (April 24, 2023)
  • Filing to FCC reiterating support for use of E-Rate funds for network security (March 29, 2023)
  • Filing to FCC urging the agency to adopt rules to allow E-Rate funds for network security (February 23, 2023)
  • Filing to FCC in support of the renomination of Amber Gregory to the USAC Board (October 11, 2022)
  • Filing to FCC advocating for the inclusion of comprehensive security tools on the list of eligible services under E-rate
  • Filing to FCC opposing the FCC proposal to create a portal for bids for the E-rate program. It would increase workload for libraries, further discourage small and less resourced libraries, and not usefully address the reduction of waste, fraud, and abuse.
  • Correspondence Archive

Staff Contact

Megan Janicki
Deputy Director, Strategic Initiatives
mjanicki@alawash.org