If you pay for a phone in the US, you'll find a small addendum each month: a few dollars for the Universal Service Fund, a federal program meant to give rural and low-income Americans phone and internet access. A fraction of that money goes to a system called E-Rate, which is specifically earmarked for bringing schools and libraries online. And today, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has pushed through an attempt to reform the 18-year-old program by putting billions of dollars towards Wi-Fi over the next few years.
Funds will come from old programs supporting pagers, email, and voice service
In a 3–2 vote along party lines, the FCC approved $1 billion a year to fund Wi-Fi in classrooms for the next five years, on top of the FCC's current $2.4 billion budget. It also made changes that Wheeler says will make the program more efficient and easier to use. But his plan met with skepticism as well as support. Days before the vote, conservative commissioner Ajit Pai came out in opposition, saying that Wheeler had been unresponsive to negotiations. He criticized the proposal for not reducing bureaucracy and for failing to make clear how it would raise money after the first two years. "As it stands, the proposal will blow a $2.7 billion hole in E-Rate's budget — one that the FCC has promised outside parties it'll fill with a post-election increase in Americans' phone bills," he wrote in a statement. He and Michael O'Rielly, the FCC's other conservative commissioner, voted against the proposal. Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel came out in support, though Clyburn urged the agency to keep working on the program.
Wheeler's office says the FCC has already freed up $2 billion for 2015 and 2016, but there's been debate over whether the agency can find more money to keep the program going. Wheeler wants to fund the Wi-Fi expansion by drawing on reserves and trimming fat, not by raising taxes. He plans, for example, to repurpose money that's currently used on services like pagers, email, and voice, potentially freeing up $1.2 billion. After the vote, Representative Anna Eshoo (D-CA) implicitly suggested that the FCC's budget should be increased, saying that adequate funding was "equally important" as today's vote. "The E-Rate program's purchasing power must meet the growing costs of internet connectivity and access," she wrote in a statement.
Does the FCC's plan disadvantage rural schools?
Pai and others have also said that the E-Rate application process is too arcane for schools to actually use, while Wheeler promises that his reform will simplify the process and make it more universally accessible. One of the ongoing questions for E-Rate is whether it unfairly favors large urban schools over small rural ones. A fraction of schools are given several times as much funding per student as the average E-Rate recipient, something Wheeler's plan is also supposed to address. But in an editorial, Pai and Senator Jerry Moran (R-KS) said that the process was still too complex and created delays that could stop low-income schools from being able to sign contracts. In addition, the proposal "The result is some schools using E-Rate to subsidize BlackBerrys for administrators while other schools can't even get funding for classroom Wi-Fi," they wrote.
Education groups were split on the proposal. The National Education Association condemned it for basing funding on number of pupils, which would limit funds for small rural schools. The State Educational Technology Directors Association called it a "pragmatic first step" that shifted resources towards new technology. The American Library Association also praised it for immediately putting money towards Wi-Fi, but it said the FCC must continue to focus on improving broadband speed overall.
The E-Rate program was adopted in 1996 to help fund discounts for information technology in schools and libraries. FCC statistics say that 94 percent of American classrooms were connected to the internet by 2005, and 98 percent of libraries were connected by 2006. But last year, President Barack Obama called on the FCC to make the program more efficient and address the many connections that were no longer fast enough to keep up with current broadband expectations. The Wi-Fi push comes alongside Obama's ConnectED program, which aims to put 100Mbps connections in all schools by 2017, and Wheeler promises that the new E-Rate budget will deliver 75 percent more Wi-Fi funding for rural schools and 60 percent for urban ones over the next five years.