By a vote of 3-2, the Federal Communications Commission approved a plan which commits $2 billion to fund the installation of broadband and wireless networks in schools across the country. The commission will do this without increasing costs to taxpayers or cell phone users, at least for the time being.
Instead, the project will be funded in two ways. First, the E-Rate program, which subsidizes outdated technologies such as pagers and dial-up Internet, will be discontinued. Those subsidies will now go toward broadband connections and wireless networks. However, most of the funding is coming from the FCC's reserve accounts.
"We're at a watershed moment," says FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. "Because of what we do today, 10 million kids will be connected next year who otherwise wouldn't. That's a good days work."
The plan has proven to be surprisingly controversial. Republicans warn the plan will be unsustainable without an increase in the amount of money currently charged to mobile phone users to support E-Rate. White House spokesman John Earnest said in order to meet Obama's goal of providing Wi-Fi in all schools, an increase of about $5 per year for each user may be necessary.
Many Democrats also take issue with the proposal, but for different reasons. They argue the plan will focus too heavily on providing Wi-Fi to some schools at the expense of continuing basic Internet service at others. Wheeler and the FCC's two Democratic representatives did make changes in the plan to ensure that broadband service for schools was the priority, with wireless networks added as funds allow.
"It certainly is not perfect, and there are key aspects I would have approached differently, but the order makes key improvements," says FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn.
The two Republican commissioners, Ajit Pai and Michael O'Rielly, criticized Wheeler for focusing on the requests of the Democratic representatives without considering the Republican opinion. The proposal funds the first two years of the project under the assumption that more funding will be made available for future years, a fact which Republicans and Democrats alike have criticized as somewhat reckless, possibly requiring either an increased cost to the public or a premature shutdown of the program.