Praise and Criticism After FCC E-Rate Vote
Posted at 5:20 p.m. on July 11, 2014
Reactions to the Federal Communications Commission’s Friday decision to approve a modified overhaul of a program that discounts telecommunications and Internet bills for schools and libraries ranged from praise to criticism of the process to calls for more money in the future.
CQ Roll Call’s Carolyn Phenicie writes that the panel approved the modified overhaul after Chairman Tom Wheeler’s original proposal faced widespread opposition among both congressional Democrats and Republicans. Here’s the background, from Phenicie:
Wheeler last month proposed updating the E-Rate program, which helps schools and libraries pay for Internet service, to emphasize funding for the physical structures needed to expand wireless Internet capacity.
Education groups and congressional Democrats said the proposal would reduce funding for basic Internet service and should include an overall increase in program funding. Congressional Republicans questioned how such an increase would be possible without raising the cap on the Universal Service Fund, a move they oppose.
The FCC approved the rule 3-2 and commissioners and staff said the modified proposal would require that all broadband service requests are fulfilled before any funding is spent on wireless needs, according to Phenicie.
After the vote, Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., who earlier this week raised concerns in a letter to Wheeler, said in a statement that the FCC had addressed some of his concerns and “correctly recognized that, while the need to promote wi-fi in all schools and libraries is more important than ever, it should not come at the expense of bringing broadband to the brick and mortar building itself.”
Similarly, National Education Association president Dennis Van Roekel said in a statement that there were “initial concerns with the originally proposed changes attempting to modernize the E-Rate Program that could have harmed the very students it was designed to help and only widen the increasingly large technology gap,” but praised the panel for “listening to the concerns of educators in devising a final proposal that will connect all students to the Internet, including those in rural and high-poverty urban areas.”
But he warned that the group’s “3 million members will be watching very closely over the next two years to ensure the very schools and libraries that have been isolated the most are not unduly harmed.”
The rule drew praise from Comcast as well as California Democrats Doris Matsui and Anna G. Eshoo, who both sit on the House Energy and Commerce Committee (Eshoo is ranking Democrat on the subcommittee with jurisdiction).
“The Commission’s plan smartly increases the presence of Wi-Fi in classrooms to meet a skyrocketing need for not just connectivity, but also widespread access,” Eshoo said in a statement.
She added: “We cannot close the books on E-Rate reform with just today’s action.”
“To realize the potential for even greater Internet speeds in all schools and libraries across the country, the E-Rate program’s purchasing power must meet the growing costs of Internet connectivity and access,” she said.
Danielle Kehl, policy analyst at the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute, called the vote a “good, albeit modest first step” and said in a statement that the “FCC’s goal of providing high-speed Internet access to all students and library patrons across the country will not be successful without more aggressive changes that address the underlying connectivity challenges.”
House Energy and Commerce Communications and Technology Subcommittee chairman Greg Walden, R-Ore., and Bob Latta, R-Ohio, blasted process.
“Today’s item on improving the Universal Service Fund schools and libraries program could have been a bipartisan success story – bringing 21st century educational tools to the students that need them to thrive,” Latta said in a statement. “Unfortunately, Chairman Wheeler’s ‘my way or the highway’ approach to working with his fellow commissioners has resulted in a partisan outcome that will ultimately place new costs on American consumers. The American people deserve better.”
Wheeler did not respond to the specific criticism from Republican commissioners on process, but later told reporters that the majority of the decisions under his leadership have been unanimous.