FCC approves spending billions to put Wi-Fi in schools and libraries

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The Federal Communications Commission on Friday approved a plan to spend $1 billion per year to provide Wi-Fi service in schools and libraries.

The plan from FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler passed in a 3-2 vote after an eleventh-hour compromise was reached to secure the votes of the commission’s two Democrats.

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“Because of what we do today, 10 million kids will be connected next year who otherwise wouldn’t. That’s a good day’s work,” Wheeler said at Friday’s open meeting. 

The Wi-Fi plan has proved controversial at the agency and on Capitol Hill.

Republicans warn that the agency will need to increase fees on U.S. phone bills to pay for the spending in Wheeler’s plan. Democrats have said the FCC should increase connectivity funding for schools and libraries across the board and worry that the Wi-Fi focus will take away funding for basic connectivity in schools and libraries.

Wheeler and the FCC’s two Democrats tweaked his original plan to ensure the Wi-Fi-only funding does not take away from funding on traditional broadband.

“It certainly is not perfect, and there are key aspects I would have approached differently, but the order makes key improvements,” FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn (D) said.

The $1 billion in annual funding would come in addition to the annual $2.4 billion budget for the FCC’s E-Rate program.

That program works to connect schools and libraries to the Internet and dovetails with the Obama administration’s ConnectED goal of connecting 99 percent of U.S. students to “next-generation” Internet by 2017.

While the agency had already set aside the first $2 billion for the Wi-Fi upgrade, the remaining billions would come from eliminating inefficiencies in the E-Rate program and redirecting funding that is currently going towards outdated technologies, such as phones and pagers.

Education groups and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle expressed concerns that the FCC would have to either raise the E-Rate budget or redirect funding for basic connectivity to meet the remaining funding goals after the first $2 billion.

Education and library groups also raised concerns about the FCC’s plan to distribute the Wi-Fi funding based on the student body size of applying schools and the square footage of applying libraries.

The final plan increases funding for small schools and libraries and would allow the FCC to reassess the per-student and per-square-foot funding model after the first $2 billion is spent.

Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel — a prominent voice in the debate over E-Rate reform — thanked Wheeler and others “for agreeing with me that all requests for connectivity to schools and libraries … be honored before Wi-Fi funding is made available.”

“I am mindful that any efforts to make Wi-Fi more broadly available cannot come at the expense of E-Rate funding that keeps schools and libraries connected to basic broadband,” she said.

Wheeler’s concessions did not win over the commission’s Republicans.

Republican commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly criticized Wheeler, saying he focused on requests from Democrats and ignored Republicans during negotiations over the Wi-Fi proposal.

O’Rielly said Wheeler’s plan reflects the “policy du jour of closing the so-called Wi-Fi gap” and will cause the agency to either renege on funding promises to schools and libraries or increase fees on U.S. phone bills.

Pai — a vocal advocate for E-Rate reform — slammed the plan for being “not real reform.”

He said Wheeler missed an opportunity to craft a bipartisan E-Rate reform plan that increases transparency and accountability and boosts funding for rural schools and libraries, where Internet access is more expensive and difficult to build out.

“Instead of slapping a plan together at the last minute after being called out by Republicans and Democrats alike for numbers that didn’t come close to adding up, the commission could have kept its promises, rather than breaking them as it does today,” he said.

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