FCC Votes to Pump Billions Into School Wi-Fi

Internet for schools becomes one of the most dramatic FCC votes.

A student shows US President Barack Obama how he is working to creat an ebook with an iPad in a classroom at Buck Lodge Middle School in Adelphi, Maryland, on February 4, 2014 before speaking detailing progress toward his ConnectED goal of connecting 99 percent of students to next-generation broadband and wireless technology within five years.
Laura Ryan
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Laura Ryan
July 11, 2014, 9:23 a.m.

Fed­er­al Com­mu­nic­a­tions Com­mis­sion Chair­man Tom Wheel­er over­came bi­par­tis­an con­cerns Fri­day to ap­prove his plan to re­vamp the agency’s school In­ter­net fund.

The agency’s two Re­pub­lic­ans vo­cally dis­sen­ted, while the two Demo­crat­ic com­mis­sion­ers re­luct­antly sup­por­ted the pro­pos­al, say­ing they hope it’s just a first step.

The FCC’s plan will in­vest a guar­an­teed $2 bil­lion in Wi-F for schools and lib­rar­ies over the next two years and take steps to im­prove the ef­fi­ciency of the pro­gram, known as E-Rate.

“10 mil­lion kids will be con­nec­ted [to Wi-Fi] that haven’t,” Wheel­er said Fri­day. “That’s a good day’s work. That’s something to be proud of.”

The agency in­tends to spend $1 bil­lion on Wi-Fi every year in­def­in­itely, but ques­tions re­main over where that money will come from. The FCC sidestepped a ma­jor stick­ing point in the E-Rate de­bate: in­creas­ing the fund’s over­all spend­ing cap.

Re­pub­lic­ans say the num­bers in the pro­pos­al don’t add up and that Wheel­er ig­nored GOP in­put. Demo­crats still want E-Rate’s $2.4 an­nu­al cap raised.

“Today’s ac­tion is a pos­it­ive step for­ward in mod­ern­iz­ing E-Rate,” Sen. Jay Rock­e­feller, who played a key role in shap­ing E-Rate, said in a state­ment Fri­day. “Now it’s time for the FCC to roll up its sleeves and work to ad­dress the real press­ing need—provid­ing much-needed ad­di­tion­al long-term fund­ing for this im­port­ant pro­gram.”

Rais­ing the cap would mean­ing rais­ing fees on Amer­ic­ans’ phone bills, be­cause E-Rate fund­ing comes from the Uni­ver­sal Ser­vice Fund. Wheel­er has not ruled out rais­ing the cap, but if he de­cides to do it, the op­pos­i­tion he faced from Re­pub­lic­ans this week will look tame.

With a last-minute tweak to his pro­pos­al, Wheel­er se­cured votes from the two Demo­crat­ic com­mis­sion­ers, Jes­sica Rosen­wor­cel and Mignon Cly­burn, to pass the first ma­jor up­date to E-Rate since it was cre­ated in 1997.

The fi­nal pro­pos­al in­cludes a “safety valve” that aims to guar­an­tee that in­vest­ment in Wi-Fi does take pri­or­ity over broad­band con­nectiv­ity, one of the primary con­cerns from both sides of the aisle in the week lead­ing up to the vote.

But Rosen­wor­cel, one of E-Rate’s biggest cham­pi­ons, and nu­mer­ous Demo­crat law­makers say that in­creas­ing E-Rate’s budget is a ne­ces­sary step to­ward reach­ing Pres­id­ent Obama’s goal of con­nect­ing 99 per­cent of U.S. stu­dents to high-speed In­ter­net by 2015.

“There is noth­ing rad­ic­al about [rais­ing the cap],” Rosen­wor­cel said Fri­day at the open com­mis­sion meet­ing. “I hope that go­ing for­ward we will have the cour­age to fix this.”

Re­pub­lic­ans vo­cally op­posed the plan, but their cri­ti­cisms will be amp­li­fied if the com­mis­sion de­cides to in­crease fund­ing for the pro­gram down the road.

Re­pub­lic­an Com­mis­sion­er Ajit Pai, who has been a ma­jor ad­voc­ate of E-Rate re­form, said the FCC’s plan main­tains the “status quo” and “for­feited the op­por­tun­ity for real, bi­par­tis­an re­form.” He sub­mit­ted his own re­form plan, which he says the com­mis­sion re­jec­ted.

“So, mark my words: Any talk of fisc­al re­spons­ib­il­ity will be short-lived. In five months, maybe six, we’ll be back at this table dis­cuss­ing how much to in­crease Amer­ic­ans’ phone bills. Uni­ver­sal ser­vice con­tri­bu­tion rates have jumped 60 per­cent un­der this ad­min­is­tra­tion,” Pai said Fri­day.

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