Educators 'beyond frustrated' with FCC's tech plans for schools

Groups representing teachers, schools and libraries are frustrated with the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) new plan to boost their Wi-Fi access.

While the FCC is looking to put Wi-Fi in schools and libraries, the agency should also be working to expand traditional Internet services, 13 education groups said in a letter to regulators.

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The groups said the FCC should not “make significant structural changes for the sake of modernization and risk jeopardizing the entire E-rate Program.”

Last week, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler announced a plan to funnel $2 billion over the next two years into Wi-Fi connections in schools and libraries. The money — which will be used to buy equipment and services — was generated by eliminating inefficiencies in the E-Rate program.

Groups representing educators and libraries say Wheeler’s focus on Wi-Fi is misguided, given that some schools and libraries struggle to get adequate wired Internet access.

The $2 billion Wi-Fi funding “is important for the vast number of schools and libraries that have not received E-rate support for internal connections for many years. But this is not enough to meet our national needs,” the American Library Association said in a statement.

The association encouraged the FCC to direct some of the $2 billion to wired Internet connections. 

“Wi-Fi without adequate broadband does not come close to adequately serving the education, employment, entrepreneurship, empowerment and civic engagement needs of our communities,” it said.

The biggest labor union for teachers, meanwhile, said it is “beyond frustrated that the Commission is moving full speed ahead without addressing our concerns and without taking action on the many red flags that we have raised.”

In a statement, National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel accused Wheeler of “missing the opportunity to seize the moment and truly address the items that will bring broadband to the communities who need it the most.”

That decision “will have a negative impact on students and educators, especially in urban, rural and low-density populated areas,” he said.

In the letter last week, the 13 groups — including the NEA — expressed concern that after the first two years, the FCC would need to support its Wi-Fi program using funding originally intended for wired Internet connections. 

The letter advocated for raising the overall budget of the E-Rate budget to meet "demands moving forward and support the continued sustainability of the program.” 

“We cannot wait any longer to address the critical need for additional, sustained E-rate funding,” the groups wrote.

The letter also pushed back on the way the agency is determining how much Wi-Fi funding each applicant gets, which includes considering the size of each school’s student body.

“We strongly believe that the E-rate Program must continue to distribute funds in an equitable way, based on need (calculated by level of poverty and locale), and not by a formula that will water down support for all areas,” they wrote.

Last week, a senior agency official defended Wheeler’s proposal to determine distribution of the $2 billion for Wi-Fi funding. 

The proposal budget will allow for adequate, if not more than adequate, funding for the school and libraries whose applications are approved, the official said.