Key Senate Dems push back on FCC’s Wi-Fi plan

Two Democratic Senators are pushing back on a proposal from Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler to spend billions for Wi-Fi in schools and libraries.

In a letter Tuesday, Senate Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) urged Wheeler to balance the push for Wi-Fi funding with funding for basic Internet connectivity.

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“Because Wi-Fi enhances connectivity for institutions that have broadband, its profound impact cannot be felt where there is no broadband to support it,” the letter said.

The letter comes as the agency prepares to vote on Wheeler’s proposal at its monthly meeting Friday.

The plan from Wheeler would add $5 billion over the next five years to the $2.4 billion annual budget for the FCC’s E-Rate program, which works to connect schools and libraries to the Internet.

The additional $5 billion will be used to provide and upgrade Wi-Fi equipment and services in schools and libraries.

The agency has set aside $2 billion and would commit to providing the additional $3 billion by cutting inefficiencies in the E-Rate program and phasing out the program’s non-Internet elements, including paying for phone service and pagers.

In their letter, Rockefeller and Markey applauded the parts of Wheeler’s program designed to make E-Rate more transparent and efficient but warned against redirecting E-Rate funds to provide Wi-Fi.

“It would be ill-advised to guarantee a permanent set-aside for Wi-Fi, if that set-aside could end up cannibalizing funding for basic connectivity,” they said, urging the FCC to increase E-Rate funding overall.

The senators also expressed concerns about the proposal’s method for allocating funds for Wi-Fi, which will include factoring in the student body size of an applying school and the square footage of an applying library.

That approach “is not an effective means of getting resources to schools and libraries with the greatest need” and “would disempower schools and libraries from addressing their highly localized conditions,” the letter said, asking Wheeler to test the new allocation system for two years.

The concerns in the senators’ letter echo the concerns expressed by some education groups in the lead up to Friday’s vote.

While some groups and tech companies have applauded Wheeler’s plan, others warn that the proposal could deprive schools and libraries of the resources they need to address basic connectivity needs.

Rockefeller and Markey urged Wheeler to respond to the concerns of those education groups.

“It is crucial for you to work with members of our nation’s education community to address their concerns,” they wrote.

“They are on the front lines of this program in classrooms and libraries across the country.”