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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