A proposal to modernize the nearly two-decade-old federal E-Rate program for schools and libraries was approved Friday, dedicating $2 billion in reserve funding to improve wireless access in the classroom over the next two years.
The vote is a move Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler said will affect 10 million students next year and begin to close the Wi-Fi gap in many schools and libraries.
In addition to the $2 billion that will be spent over the next two years, the FCC will redirect E-Rate funding away from non-broadband services, like pagers and phones, gradually over the following three years. The goal is to allocate a total of $5 billion to Wi-Fi over the next five years, while also supporting broadband connectivity in schools and libraries.
“It would be a mistake to simply add money to a program that was set in the 20th century,” Wheeler said at Friday’s FCC meeting, which was telecasted. “Technology has changed, the needs of students and library users have changed, and now E-Rate has changed.”
Created in 1998, E-Rate offers a government subsidy on broadband and telephone services. The approved order will gradually phase out non-broadband services over the next five years.
The FCC’s vote fell along party lines, with the two Republican commissioners dissenting and offering terse criticism. Commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly said the details of the plan were unclear and did nothing to help already disadvantaged rural schools because of the method for determining aid.
“The FCC has forfeited this opportunity for real, bi-partisan reform of the E-Rate program,” Pai said during his vote.
“Real reform would have meaningfully simplified the application process. It would have ended the unfair treatment of small, rural school and libraries. It would have let local communities set their own education tech priorities.”
O’Rielly also objected to the plan’s “single-minded focus on Wi-Fi.”
“While some schools and library may benefit from improved Wi-Fi access within their building, others still need connectivity to the building,” he said. “Connectivity is still a necessary prerequisite and demand for bandwidth will only increase. Indeed, it could be intensified by making Wi-Fi more widely available.”
Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said that while the proposal was imperfect, it was “an initial step to close the gaps.”
Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said the challenge is no longer connecting schools to the Internet, but ensuring schools have enough Internet capacity to adequately teach students.
“Too many of our schools and libraries that rely on E-Rate, often in low-income and rural communities, access the Internet at speeds as low as 3 megabits. That’s lower than the broadband speed of the average American home but has 200 times as many users,” Rosenworcel said.
“That means too many schools do not have the capacity to offer high-definition streaming video. It means too many schools are unable to take advantage of the most innovative digital teaching tools. And it means too many students are unable to develop the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills that are so essential to compete,” she added.
As it was, the E-Rate program was not equipped to change that, Wheeler said.
“Unfortunately, in recent years, E-Rate-supported requests for Wi-Fi have been honored in less than 5 percent of the schools and 1 percent of the libraries. And last year, there was no, zip, nada, nothing in terms of E-Rate support for getting connectivity to the student rather than the inanimate object sitting in the corner,” Wheeler said.
“So the first step is to target a billion dollars in annual funding to connect to real people – the students and library patrons. And important doing so consistent with the bedrock principle of prioritizing funding for those who need it most,” he added.