FCC chief unveils plan to close 'Wi-Fi gap'

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler has a plan to close the gap between schools and libraries that have wireless Internet and those that don’t.

On Friday, Wheeler unveiled his plan to spend $2 billion over the next two years to close this “Wi-Fi gap” as an expansion of the FCC’s E-Rate program, which comes after pressure from the White House to increase connectivity in schools.

Earlier this year, Wheeler announced that the agency had saved $2 billion in recent years, which would be put toward the E-Rate program moving forward.

In an order circulated Friday, Wheeler proposed spending $1 billion next year and another $1 billion in 2016 to put Wi-Fi networks in schools and libraries.

The new funding will come on top of the agency’s $2.4 billion annual budget for E-Rate, small parts of which have gone to Wi-Fi funding in past years.

“New technologies like tablets and digital textbooks are providing great new opportunities for individualized learning and research,” Wheeler said in a blog post.

“Effective use of this technology requires individual connections in schools and libraries to personal devices, and Wi-Fi is the most cost-effective way to provide this connectivity,” he wrote.

Wheeler’s proposal also includes measures to increase efficiency within the program to boost the buying power of E-Rate dollars, including increasing transparency around the program’s spending and allowing the schools and libraries receiving the funds to purchase Wi-Fi equipment and services identified by the General Services Administration.

“The new plan will make E-Rate dollars go farther by creating processes to drive down prices and increase transparency on how program dollars are spent,” Wheeler wrote.

“And it will simplify the application process for schools and libraries, making the program more efficient while reducing the potential for fraud and abuse.”

According to a senior FCC official, Wheeler’s proposal will provide funding for Wi-Fi networks based on a budget that factors in the number of students at a school applying for the new funds.

Though some have expressed concerns about tying E-Rate funding to the size of a school’s student body, the official said the budget will provide adequate — and likely more than adequate — funding for Wi-Fi networks.