The people who created E-Rate think the FCC’s going about it all wrong


(Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Two of the Senate's most respected members on educational technology aren't satisfied with the FCC's plan to get schools and libraries wired with Internet and Wi-Fi.

Sens. Ed Markey and Jay Rockefeller are putting pressure on the Federal Communications Commission to vastly expand the amount of money the agency spends on E-Rate, the program that provides government subsidies to schools and libraries for broadband and phone service. In a letter to the FCC Wednesday, the two lawmakers demanded that the commission increase what it sets aside every year for the program.

"The E-Rate program has been frozen at a level designed for the dial-up era," the lawmakers wrote. "This type of thinking does our children a disservice."

The lawmakers object to how the FCC has suggested funding WiFi upgrades in schools and libraries according to a per-student or per-square-foot formula, arguing that it unfairly allocates more money to large and wealthy institutions over smaller, poorer ones where the need may be greater.

The letter from Markey and Rockefeller — two of the legislators who first shepherded E-Rate through Congress in the mid-1990s — is a sign that funding battles over educational broadband and WiFi are spilling over into the public eye, just as the FCC prepares to vote Friday on a proposal to modernize how it gets money to schools and libraries (and how much). It also reveals a bit about the internal politics of the FCC, which have gotten more fractious in the months since Chairman Tom Wheeler took office.

The FCC's two Republican commissioners, Ajit Pai and Michael O'Rielly, are both skeptical about the need to expand E-Rate. In a statement Tuesday, Pai said that the agency can't afford to spend $1 billion a year for the next five years on WiFi upgrades. (Wheeler has already set aside $2 billion over the next two years for WiFi.)

O'Rielly has countered the call for expanding the overall size of E-Rate, arguing that any increase should come with a corresponding decrease in spending elsewhere.

"I hope that we will use this opportunity to make the responsible decision to live within a reasonable but limited budget," O'Rielly wrote in a blog post this week.

But while right-leaning commissioners are hoping to forestall any increase in the size of E-Rate, Wheeler is feeling pressure on the left from Democratic commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who has pointed out that the demand for E-Rate funds is double what the FCC makes available every year. The FCC caps E-Rate funding at about $2.4 billion a year.

The letter from Markey and Rockefeller only ups the stakes. Insiders say that as a close former Rockefeller aide, Rosenworcel likely asked the senators to intervene on her behalf.

Wheeler has proven before that he is unafraid of party-line votes if it means he gets his way. With the commission's Republicans fiercely challenging any growth in E-Rate, Wheeler could well decide that seeking a compromise is a waste of time.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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