FCC Republican: Wi-Fi talks have broken down

A Republican on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is accusing FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler of politicizing the agency’s program to boost Internet access in schools and libraries.

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In a statement on Tuesday, Commissioner Ajit Pai said negotiations over Wheeler’s plan to change the program have broken down because the chairman is “determined to pass this item on a party-line vote,” without the input of the FCC’s two Republicans.

“I am disappointed that this is becoming the Commission norm on high-profile items,” he said.

Wheeler’s proposal would funnel $5 billion over the next five years to provide and upgrade Wi-Fi in tens of thousands of schools and libraries on top of the annual $2.4 billion budget for the agency’s E-Rate program.

That proposal, which Wheeler first unveiled last month, is going to be voted on at the commission’s monthly meeting Friday.

It’s unclear whether Wheeler will have the three votes he needs to get his proposal through, as some education groups oppose the plan and are pressing commissioners to vote against it.

Pai has been a vocal advocate for E-Rate reform and, along with Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, was considered a potential ally in Wheeler’s push to update the program.

He echoed the concerns of the education groups opposing the plan.

“Any good math teacher would give the FCC’s E-Rate proposal an ‘F’ because the numbers just don’t add up,” he said.

“It promises over $5 billion for Wi-Fi but doesn’t identify where the money will come from to fund this new program.”

The agency has already set aside $2 billion for the first two years of the E-Rate expansion and has said it will provide the remaining $3 billion by cutting inefficiencies in the program and phasing out non-Internet services, such as phones and pagers.

Pai criticized other parts of Wheeler’s proposal, including the way it would allocate funds and the requirements for applicants.

“Rather than giving local school boards, principals, teachers, and librarians the flexibility to decide what services and technologies best meet their communities’ particular needs, the plan takes a Washington-knows-best mindset,” he said.

“But I’m even more disappointed for America’s teachers, librarians, parents, students, and library patrons, many of whom I’ve met over the past many months, who will have to wait years more for 21st-century digital opportunities — for real E-Rate reform.” 

According to an FCC official, Wheeler has been receptive to some changes put forward by other Commissioners and only rejected Pai's proposals that would have fundamentally altered the principles of the program.

"Chairman Wheeler’s five-year plan to expand Wi-Fi to all schools and libraries puts to work up to $2 billion in reserves, cuts costs and phases down non-broadband services in order to fund the expansion.   His proposal will increase WiFi funding for rural schools by 75 percent and urban schools by 60 percent," an agency spokeswoman said.

"Going forward, Chairman Wheeler will assess whether the long-term funding of the program meets the demand of schools and libraries for high-speed Internet access."

-- This post was updated at 5:55 p.m.

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