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Deleted Scenes #02: The E-Rate Campaign

Posted on Sat, Feb 11, 2006 at 1:18 AM by Andrew Chadwick

This passage about the E-Rate Campaign in the United States as an example of organizational adaptation didn't make the final cut of Chapter 07: Parties, Candidates, and Elections: E-Campaigning.

Another example that nicely illustrates the Internet's impact on traditional interest groups may be found in the areas of education and telecommunications policy. The 'E-Rate' campaign of the late-1990s centred around provisions in the US Telecommunications Act of 1996 establishing 'universal service' as a doctrine shaping access to newly emerging digital networks. The main aim of universal service was to establish a framework of discounts, subsidies and standards that would allow rural as well as urban areas to benefit from the roll out of new telecommunication infrastructures. Following an amendment to the bill as it proceeded through Congress, largely the product of a quiet but concerted lobbying effort by a number of educational groups, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was empowered to set discount rates to which telecommunication companies were compelled to adhere when selling their services to schools and libraries. These discounts, which were partly but not wholly offset by federal subsidy, became known as the 'E-Rate'.

Not surprisingly, during 1997, the FCC was flooded with applications from schools and colleges eager to obtain discounts for wiring up their classrooms. Appalled at the rise in applicants, the major US telecommunication companies, AT&T, MCI, Bellsouth and others started a campaign to have Congress reconsider the E-Rate, claiming that it constituted an unfair 'tax' on the industry that they would be compelled to pass on to consumers. Their campaign won the support of many Republican Members of Congress, and within a year of its introduction, this aspect of the 1996 Telecommunications Act was under threat.

The response by the educational groups that had pressed for the E-Rate in the original bill was to create a new national organization: a 'Save The E-Rate Coalition'. With the financial help of the wealthy National Education Association and the expertise of Capitol Advantage, a Washington based political communication consultancy, the Coalition established an Intranet to internally co-ordinate action, and a public-facing web site providing information and tools citizens could use to contact their Member of Congress and the FCC. In the two month period between May and June 1998, the Save The E-Rate Coalition orchestrated the sending of around 20,000 emails to Congress at a total cost of only $40,000. Moreover, the Coalition leaders were able to monitor the transmission of messages and tailor their strategy accordingly, focusing on particularly important individuals' mailboxes (Bimber, 2003: 158-159). In June 1998, the FCC came under pressure to make a decision about the E-Rate's future. As a compromise, a diluted version of the discount structure emerged, which tightened up the rules on which schools could apply for the cheap rates. But the principle of the E-Rate was left intact, and by 1999, around three quarters of US public schools and half of its libraries had applied for E-Rate discounts.


Bimber, B. (2003) Information and American Democracy: Technology in the Evolution of Political Power (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge).

Edited on: Sat, Feb 11, 2006 1:36 AM

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