To achieve its goal of wider Internet access, the FCC today took the unusual step of permitting schools to let the public use their federally-funded computer terminals for personal use.
Such public access, which the agency unanimously approved during its monthly meeting late this afternoon, would be permitted during after-school hours, weekends, holidays and summer breaks at each school's discretion. But school doors only would be open to the public until June 30, 2011 unless the initiative is made permanent.
The action was approved in conjunction with the FCC's upcoming national broadband plan, which will detail a strategy for achieving universal, affordable Internet access by 2020.
The idea of tapping school computer networks was modeled after a program in Alaska.
Under the approach, schools that receive federal universal service funds that pay for education-related broadband connectivity could use the resources to assist the general population. The money is provided through the fund's so-called E-rate, or educational rate, which Senate Commerce Chairman John (Jay) Rockefeller, D-W.Va., was instrumental in crafting. His committee oversees the agency and will closely scrutinize the broadband plan, to be presented to Congress no later than March 17.
"These connections will be available to adults taking evening digital literacy courses, to unemployed workers looking for jobs posted online, to citizens using e-government services and for other uses that local schools believe will help their communities," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said.
An agency spokesman said schools would have to pick up the costs for personnel, security and computer maintenance, and would be responsible for ensuring that their computers, which already have filtering software, are not used for inappropriate or illegal purposes.
FCC officials emphasized that their scheme would not require any additional universal service funding.
In other developments today, the FCC unanimously approved two sets of proposed rules designed to bolster its transparency and efficiency. "Our nation needs and deserves an FCC that puts consumers first," Genachowski said, emphasizing that reform efforts have been among his highest priorities.
Under one proposal, lobbyists, consumer advocates and other public stakeholders would have to disclose more details about their private meetings with FCC officials. A related proceeding would make it easier for the agency to clear its backlog of pending proceedings and terminate inactive dockets.
The agency already requires public disclosures -- so-called ex parte filings -- but the details of any contacts with FCC officials are often sketchy, sometimes only listing who participated and the general topics of discussion.
Under the recommended rule change, more information would have to be revealed, and disclosures would be required for more circumstances.
The move is designed to shed more light on activities at the agency, where the eighth-floor offices of commissioners are visited each business day by a steady stream of lobbyists and other stakeholders.
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