FCC chairman pledges ‘businesslike’ overhaul to school broadband

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Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler said on Wednesday the agency would take a “businesslike approach” to President Obama’s plan to bring broadband Internet to virtually all American students.

Wheeler said the move will require an overhaul of its existing program, to get rid of existing inefficiencies and double funding for the initiative over the next two years.

The school and library Internet access program, known as E-Rate, would be at the top of Wheeler’s agenda while in office, he said at an event to mark Digital Learning Day at the Library of Congress.

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“During my tenure as chairman of the FCC, there will be no bigger or more significant issue than making sure our schools and libraries are connected to high-speed broadband networks,” he said. “That’s why E-Rate modernization is at the top of my agenda and why I support President Obama’s goal of connecting 99 percent of all students to high speed broadband capacity in five years or faster.”

In order to meet that goal, Wheeler said the commission would make “significant improvements to the way funds are deployed” to reallocate money and double its funding to $2 billion in the next two years.

The FCC would also make “administrative and structural changes” going forward.

“The intent is not to tear down the existing program and start over,” Wheeler explained. “Rather, we should restructure the program in a way that results in a process that effectively targets high capacity connections to all libraries and schools and to provide resources to make sure high-speed Wi-Fi delivers that connectivity within the classroom and the library.”

In coming months, the FCC will begin accepting public comments on ways to restructure the effort to focus on high-speed Internet access and help as many students as possible.

“We can build the pathway that delivers a 21st century education to 21st century students,” he said.

Wheeler’s remarks come on the heels of Obama’s announcement of a “down payment” on the initiative.

On Tuesday, the president announced that companies like Apple, Verizon and Microsoft had made more than $750 million in charitable commitments to help with the effort. 

Tech companies and educational advocates have applauded the new focus on the effort.

Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, called the E-Rate update ”a game-changer for the American education system.”

Grant Seiffert, head of the Telecommunications Industry Association, said in a statement after Wheeler’s remarks that the FCC overhaul “provides a critical boost towards ubiquitous broadband for America’s students.”

The extra FCC funding will help schools and libraries pay for tech infrastructure and Internet service.

The program is funded by charges on monthly phone bills.