Dems rally behind FCC’s Wi-Fi plan despite concerns

Despite early concerns Democrats on Capitol Hill have rallied behind a new plan to spend billions on Wi-Fi in schools and libraries.

“While today’s order is not perfect, it will help to ensure that millions of American students have access to the next-generation broadband technology they need to succeed,” members of the New Democrat Coalition said in a statement Friday.

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The statement — signed by Reps. Ron Kind (D-Wis.), Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.) and Jared Polis (D-Colo.) — pushed the FCC to further modernize funding for Internet access in schools and libraries.

The FCC voted Friday to spend $1 billion per year on Wi-Fi equipment services in schools and libraries on top of the annual $2.4 billion budget for E-Rate, the agency’s program to connect schools and libraries to the Internet. 

The $2 billion for the first two years has already been set aside, and the agency will get remaining funding by eliminating inefficiencies in the E-Rate program and redirecting funding for outdated technologies like phones and pagers.

Some lawmakers — including Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who helped create the  E-Rate program — expressed concerns that Wheeler’s proposal would spend money the agency didn’t have.

While Republicans worried that the FCC would have to increase phone bill fees down the road to fund the Wi-Fi improvements, Democrats and some education groups worried that the Wi-Fi only funding would be taken from funding for basic Internet access through E-Rate and pushed for more E-Rate funding across the board.

After eleventh-hour negotiations, Wheeler changed his proposal to create a “safety valve” to ensure that the Wi-Fi funding would not be prioritized above requests for funding for basic connectivity.

Markey said Wheeler’s changes had “addressed some of my concerns and correctly recognized that, while the need to promote Wi-Fi in all schools and libraries is more important than ever, it should not come at the expense of bringing broadband to the brick and mortar building itself.”

Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) — the top Democrat on the House Commerce Committee on Communications — praised Wheeler’s plan for “smartly increas[ing] the presence of Wi-Fi in classrooms to meet a skyrocketing need for not just connectivity, but also widespread access.”

On the other side of the aisle, lawmakers were less pleased.

Reps. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) and Bob Latta (R-Ohio) — chairman and vice chairman of the House Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, respectively — criticized Wheeler, pointing to complaints from the two Republican FCC Commissioners that they were cut out of negotiations.

“Deliberations at the FCC need to include all commissioners. Period,” Walden said in a statement Friday.

He cited complaints from Republican Commission Ajit Pai that the Republicans on the Commission did not receive the final version of Wheeler’s proposal until 17 minutes before the meeting.

“When commissioners don’t receive drafts of proposals until shortly before the vote, there has been a colossal breakdown of process, collegiality, and trust that should characterize the work of the commission,” Walden said.

Wheeler’s decision to keep Republican Commissioners “resulted in a partisan outcome that will ultimately place new costs on American consumers,” Latta said.

“The American people deserve better.”

After Friday’s meeting, Wheeler defended his interactions with the Republicans, echoing defenses from FCC officials that Wheeler was open to non-fundamental changes to his proposal.

“We made a point of making sure that everybody on the floor fully understood the goals and had a full opportunity to engage” with the E-Rate reform order, he said.

“There’s a difference between negotiating and changing principles, and we stuck with our principles.”