In remote regions of Alaska, where hooking classrooms to the Internet via satellite can easily cost tens of thousands of dollars a month, cash-strapped school districts have come to depend on a federal program that has suddenly suspended funding.
E-Rate, overseen by the Federal Communications Commission, reimburses schools for Internet service, wiring and some equipment, getting proceeds from surcharges on long-distance phone bills.
Without it, its advocates say, rural or poorer schools would have limited access to the online world, if at all.
‘‘We would not have broadband access. We would not have interactive video,’’ said Marge Randlett, technology director for the sprawling Kuspuk School District about 350 miles west of Anchorage. ‘‘Teachers could find things ahead of time and print them out, but you can’t effectively use the Internet as a live source of information.’’
Schools in other states benefit, too. In fact, most schools and some public libraries have gotten E-Rate funding at some point since the program began in 1998.
However, with charges of fraud and new accounting rules delaying funding commitments, the Kuspuk district and other E-Rate beneficiaries around the country aren’t sure whether they can count on the program anymore.
Kuspuk, which had made plans to switch Internet providers, has scaled back plans to install equipment and left some school buildings Internet-free.
In Alaska’s Southeast Island School District, which spans nearly 25,000 square miles, all the schools have new videoconferencing equipment to provide students with opportunities to take advanced math and foreign language classes remotely.
Without E-Rate funds, the required Internet linkage is absent.
The federal government has assured districts that the money is merely delayed, not cut. But school administrators remain worried.
The program has come under fire as auditors unearthed abuses.