Education groups back $2 billion Wi-Fi plan

A coalition of education groups is backing a proposal at the Federal Communications Commission that would funnel billions of dollars into wireless Internet for schools and libraries.

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The proposal “is a necessary first step toward providing students with the educational infrastructure they need to excel,” 10 education groups said in a letter to FCC commissioners sent Monday.

Signatories include the Consortium for School Networking, the National Association of State Boards of Education and the State Educational Technology Directors Association.

The letter comes as the agency prepares to vote Friday on the new proposal from Chairman Tom Wheeler to expand the FCC’s E-Rate funding. Opposition to Wheeler’s plan could put the vote in jeopardy.

The proposal would dedicate $5 billion over the next five years — on top of the annual $2.4 billion budget for the E-Rate program — to funding exclusively used to provide and upgrade Wi-Fi equipment and service in schools and libraries.

The agency has already set aside $2 billion for the first two years and anticipates providing the other $3 billion by eliminating inefficiencies in the E-Rate program and phasing out non-Internet access services, such as phones and pagers.

The plan fits with the Obama administration’s ConnectED initiative, which aims to have 99 percent of U.S. students connected to “next generation” Internet access by 2017.

Wheeler’s proposal would also streamline the E-Rate application process and make the program’s spending more transparent.

“The improvements that will be made under Chairman Wheeler’s proposal lay the foundation for the permanent expansion of the program that is required to provide an affective education in the twenty-first century,” the letter said.

The letter also comes after pushback from other education groups, which worry Wheeler’s plan could end up distributing the connectivity funds unfairly.

Because the expanded funding would be doled out to schools and libraries based on applicants’ size — student body and square footage, respectively — some groups say Wheeler’s proposal will hurt small, rural schools and libraries.

In a letter last month, 13 education groups opposed Wheeler’s plan, encouraging the commission to increase the E-Rate budget overall and to meet basic connectivity needs before focusing on Wi-Fi.

“We cannot support raiding [E-Rate Internet access] funds — resources beneficiaries depend upon to help meet their ongoing, monthly costs for broadband connectivity — to support Wi-Fi,” they wrote.