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February 6, 2016

FCC’s E-Rate Proposal Draws Questions from Rockefeller, Markey

The chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee has concerns about a Federal Communications Commission proposal to overhaul the program that provides discounts to schools and libraries for telecommunications and Internet service. The FCC is slated to vote on the proposal on Friday.

Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va. and Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., who also sits on the panel, wrote to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler to say they’re “pleased” to hear that he appears to be proposing a number of “common sense reforms to cut red-tape and update the E-Rate program,” but that they have “serious concerns about some aspects.”

One of the concerns has to do with funding for Wi-Fi in relation to other activities:

Efforts to make Wi-Fi technology ubiquitous in our schools and libraries cannot come at the expense of the already limited funding that keeps these institutions connected. It would be ill-advised to guarantee a permanent set-aside for Wi-Fi, if that set-aside could end up cannibalizing funding for basic Internet connectivity. In practice, without additional program funding, such a set-aside could upend the priority structure that has long-served the E-Rate program by shortchanging funding for Interent connectivity in the country’s poorest and most rural schools in favor of funding Wi-Fi technology everywhere.

They also write that they’re concerned by reports that the proposal would “radically alter the program by adopting per student or per square foot funding models for Wi-Fi. We are opposed to the use of such per student or square foot distribution mechanisms for any aspect of E-Rate because it is not an effective means of getting resources to schools and libraries with the greatest need.”

And on the issue of money, they write that the permanent funding cap for the program should be raised: “The need for additional long-term funding for this program demands action. Thus, no matter the outcome of the E-Rate program udpates you are currently considering, we will continue to work with you to secure the support required to meet the present and future broadband needs of our schools and libraries.”

Education advocates have also been critical about the proposal. For example, CQ Roll Call’s Carolyn Phenicie has reported that groups who represent superintendents, federally affected schools and rural schools, in particular are against a shift from needs-based allocation of money to distribution of funds on a per-pupil basis. And, advocates have been critical of the fact that the plan would not raise the program’s overall funding cap – a move that would have likely drawn fire from lawmakers on the Hill.

Phenicie reported last week that the commission defended its plan, with a top official highlighting the increased availability of wireless access under the proposal.

FCC commissioner Ajit Pai opposes the plan and said in a statement that  the numbers “just don’t add up.”

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