Winter-Spring 2002

A Mixed Picture - Telecom Policy Update and Analysis
by Ryan Turner

Ryan Turner

Please Note:  Addendum on community technology funding status.

Recently-passed FY '02 appropriations present a mixed picture for federal community technology funding. Congress may very well have approved increased funding for technology programs, at levels above what the President requested, but it’s hard to assess the nature of what actually was increased, and more importantly the rhyme and reason as to why.

The Bush Administration's original budget request emphasized consolidation into block grants, or outright elimination, of individual technology access and education programs across agencies-- especially those thought to be duplicating efforts and perceived as inaccessible to small, local community efforts.  The Administration's request included zero-funding of the Education Department’s CTC program, and the subsequent establishment of a similar effort under the Department of Housing and Urban Development Neighborhood Networks program, at a funding level of $80 million. While this would have represented an increase in the amount spent for community technology overall, in keeping with his campaign pledge, it also raised concerns among supporters and current recipients of the Education Department grants. Among them were fears that support for existing projects, funded by three-year matching grants, might be at risk, as well as the America Connects Consortium, the only federally-sponsored CTC coordination, improvement, and outreach network.

So how did community technology fare, overall? The Department of Education's Community Technology Centers program, funded at $65 million in FY '01, will receive $32.5 million under the Labor/HHS/Education appropriations bill passed by Congress in late December. The Technology Opportunities Program, housed under the Department of Commerce's National Technology Infrastructure Administration, receives $15 million (only $12.4 million of which is actually available for new grants) under the FY '02 Commerce-Justice-State appropriations signed into law last November--down 65% from $45 million in FY '01. But the Department of Housing and Urban Development's Neighborhood Networks program--an initiative which has received no funding for centers since its inception in 1995--will receive a total of $20 million in VA-HUD spending under the Public Housing Capital Fund and HOPE VI funds to revitalize severely distressed public housing.

In addition, there is $25 million earmarked under appropriations for the Corporation for National Service for “activities dedicated to developing computer and information technology skills for students and teachers in low-income communities”; $120 million (down from $150 million in FY ’01) for the Department of Labor’s One Stop network, which coordinates federal, state, and local employment education and training resources providing both facilities and online access to job and career information and resources; and the lengthy number of specific earmarks under the Department of Education’s Fund for Improving Education which are directed, in a number of cases, for improving the technology capacity of individual schools, libraries, and educational facilities.

On a simple level, one could say that some programs gained or lost funding, quite possibly at the expense of one another. If this is indeed the case, the FY ’02 funding picture would only underscore the piecemeal approach with which community technology has been handled across agencies, and maybe by the overall community of interests itself, over the past few years.

The Education Department CTC program provides matching grants to develop access points for computers, information and telecommunications technology in the context of educational services and skills training for those lacking such access at home, work or school. TOP supports public-private efforts to help develop the national advanced telecommunications and information technology infrastructure for social services delivery—including education, health, employment, and public safety—to underserved rural and urban areas across the country. Neighborhood Networks supports partnerships to establish multi-service central points utilizing information technology in areas of low- and moderate-income multi-family housing. There are technology access, training and technical assistance, and demonstration initiatives administered by a number of other federal agencies targeted towards specific audiences and the general population.

There have been complaints that because the funding is difficult to access, administer, or sustain, existing federal programs are not worth applying to. Obstacles include burdensome application and reporting procedures, financial and resource barriers to participation, and competition from groups with more experience, expertise, presence, and/or political influence. There have been arguments that some federal programs, a number of which were very close to being eliminated this past legislative session, are not worth advocating for, because they address complementary goals only in the abstract and programmatically serve a disparate range of competing interests—schools, libraries, nonprofit organizations, businesses, and other community institutions—in an uncoordinated manner.

It would be one thing if these criticisms came from voices skeptical of federal monies spent as investments in community-building and human development in an uncertain economic environment. It is surprising to hear, then, that these sentiments are coming from within the larger community technology community itself, which gets back again to the lack of sustainable coordination among its diverse members. Rather than focusing on specific issues and particular programs in the area of education technology, workforce development, information access, civic participation, specific populations, economic investment and infrastructure development, and others, some advocates feel that all of these interests need to start advocating for one another under a broader, organized, cooperative, coordinated community technology banner. Recent developments, at least within the Education Department, suggest that such an effort might actually have an incentive to be mobilized and active during the next appropriations round for fiscal year 2003 and beyond.

In response to the concerns that small groups and local players are shut out of federal funding and grants opportunities, the Education Department posted its final rules regarding competitive funding on November 30, 2001, allowing the Secretary of Education latitude in holding separate competitive rounds for, or assigning competitive preference to, novice applicants in discretionary grant programs.  As others have pointed out, the recently passed Education bill will have a potentially tremendous impact on community technology programming, if not funding, in at least three ways.

First, there is actual authorizing language for the first time specifically for the Community Technology Centers program under the Education Department. This is important because Congress is not technically supposed to appropriate funds to programs that have no authorization (although this is often overlooked). This means that the program itself can be considered among specific appropriations items, rather than funded through another program’s authority. Paradoxically, this also means that without any political support, the program can just as easily be eliminated from the budget. Second, the bill adds authority for 150 projects and seven state efforts to receive waivers from Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) program rules in order to sign self-determined “accountability contracts” and performance goals with the Secretary of Education—thus either raising or lowering the bar for participation by diverse entrants in the educational arena to deliver on a range of educational goals. Third, the Education bill gives local school districts and states the ability to transfer up to 50% of the federal monies they receive for a specific program to a range of programs under ESEA, without requiring federal permission to do so. Thus, federal funds originally targeted for class size reduction or teacher salaries could conceivably be transferred for community-based technology educational efforts on an annual, non-permanent basis.

While promising to offer education efforts a higher incentive for innovation and partnership, and a greater degree of flexibility to target funds for specific needs without layers of bureaucratic obstacles, the Education bill potentially binds disparate technology and non-technology education priorities together, to be addressed at the expense of one another, without guaranteed consistency from school year to school year.

Add to this picture the shifting sense of post-September 11 domestic spending priorities, borne out by FY ’02 appropriations, and we have the following mixed signal summary:

  • Slightly less money than requested is available for direct technology block grants to states;
  • More money for technology for education-related content;
  • No money requested or provided for school-based technology literacy;
  • No money requested or provided for technology innovation in education or community development;
  • Significantly more money than requested for teacher training for technology
  • No money for education technology leadership development;
  • More money than requested for community technology models to support education and lifelong learning (with a sharp bias towards school/after-school based facilities);
  • Less money for workforce training and development-focused technology service delivery;
  • Less money for critical community information and communications technology infrastructure innovation.

A big question in search of an answer is what exactly is the priority for community technology policy from among funding, training, capacity building, evaluation, expansion or replication of best practices, tax benefits and credits for items ranging from broadband deployment to equipment donations? The degree to which the range of federal, state, local, private, and other resources is uncoordinated and even aimed towards competing ends with other efforts is a big obstacle currently preventing a clear, effective vision of community technology policy from emerging as the term “digital divide” loses its potency in the political landscape.

Given the current economic uncertainty around sustainable funding for new and existing programs, there is heightened urgency thrust upon the broader community of technology access interests to articulate their needs for coordinated federal investments to help spur innovative and effective approaches to technology access, knowledge and skills, and utilization for individual and community development and participation in civic, social, and economic life. Otherwise, there is strong likelihood that complementary program interests will be pitted against one another in a contest for survival.

In late 2001, for example, as much as $390 million available under the E-Rate program—under which fees are collected from telecommunications firms by way of consumers in order to provide a range of discounted telecommunications services to schools and libraries—was slated to be funneled to support expansion of the Rural Health Care program. RHC is a universal service initiative designed by the Federal Communications Commission to provide discounts on telecommunication services to rural health care providers for telemedicine and telehealth efforts. Because the discount is limited to the difference between rates charged to urban and rural providers, the program, which only receives up to $10 million annually, has never enjoyed the popularity of E-Rate, which can collect up to $400 million annually. Post-September 11th fears around the inadequacy of existing public health telecommunications dissemination infrastructure prompted House Commerce Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-LA) to introduce legislation expanding the scope of RHC to that of E-Rate, but for all funds above RHC’s current floor of $10 million yet below $400 million to come from the E-Rate fund for the next two years—ensuring support for an increase in applications, without raising fees collected from telecom firms and their customers. Concerned that such an arrangement would jeopardize funding for school and library telecommunication connections and services, E-Rate supporters worked with House Commerce Ranking Member Rep. John Dingell (D-MI) on compromise language that instead would divert all traditional TOP funding for two years to support RHC expansion for urban, rural and Native American telemedicine projects—even though TOP currently supports a number of projects in this area. Senators Kennedy (D-MA) and Frist (R-TN) introduced a companion bill to Chairman Tauzin’s legislation that called for increasing the information and communications technology equipment capacity for health care providers, but without use of TOP or E-Rate to fund expansion or federal-state coordination of such efforts. The Tauzin-Dingell’s bio-terrorism bill passed by an overwhelming vote in the House, while the full Senate has yet to consider S.1765 as of this writing.

Existing federal programs have come to emphasize collaboration among important community- based and community-focused actors and institutions, to produce a body of successful and replicable program models. Much political capital and policy muscle has been expended to establish the existing set of federal opportunities available. Yet even now, the overall participant and recipient base has not been effective in sustaining widespread support and visibility on the Hill, or among the public, around broader community technology policy goals and objectives—though the number of applicants and need continues to grow in inverse proportion to the number of resources available. This has led to a shift away from rallying cries attacking the digital divide, and towards the daunting question of “access to what, by whomever is most deserving, towards what end?”

If there is any chance for a coordinated community technology policy effort to be actively engaged in deliberations around what resources are available and how they will be applied to meet pressing needs, there has got to be more involvement in the full continuum of activities where presence is important.  This means identifying gaps or shortcomings with respect to current activity and resources and pushing for corrective measures within the national policy arena, by establishing early and continued contact with lawmakers and policymakers at the national and local level.  It means encouraging and assisting groups to apply for existing funding, and serving as reviewers for grant opportunities to help nullify the potential for bias or misdirection of program focus. It means developing and utilizing expertise and technical assistance to ensure that program oversight and operations are less daunting for new and smaller players and so that innovation and promising practices can grow and replicate where they are so desperately needed. It means raising the visibility of community technology efforts across the country among citizens in every community where they exist and operate.

A healthy community technology policy effort means cooperating with each and every set of community technology interests in order to protect what’s available now, and to nurture what could be possible in the future.

Ryan Turner is a telecommunications analyst at OMB Watch and editor of NPTalk, a moderated daily digest of information and discussion for individuals and organizations interested in nonprofits’ use of information and communications technology in public policy activities. Check OMB Watch, too, for more CTC telecom policy information.

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