FCC approves $2 billion federal program to make schools and libraries go Wi-Fi


An FCC vote approved $2 billion in spending, split over two years, to deliver more Wi-Fi service to schools and libraries -- some commission members stated their intent to figure out a way to spend $1 billion each year after the first two, but opponents have said the FCC first needs to explain exactly how it intended to secure the initial funds.

In a 3-2 vote, the FCC moved to re-appropriate E-Rate funds, used on dated technologies, to expand Wi-Fi in schools and libraries. E-Rate, set into motion in 1996, taxes consumers of telecommunications services and spends the proceeds on technology in classrooms and libraries.

The FCC reasoned that E-Rate funding for Wi-Fi was generally unsteady and was even unavailable throughout 2013. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, who initially proposed $5 billion in E-Rate funding, said the first $1 Billion spent on Wi-Fi expansion will benefit 10 million students.

From the start, the FCC's proposal to upgrade and expand Wi-Fi services through E-Rate drew both internal and external opposition. Though $5 billion was reportedly up for consideration before being scaled back, FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn stated his esteem for the $2 billion initiative.

"While today's item does not make all of the changes necessary to achieve each and every goal, it does make noteworthy steps in the right direction," said Clyburn.

But the E-Rate vote wasn't unanimous and Republican Commissioner Michael O'Rielly stated his concern for the initiative, suggesting that the E-Rate program could seek to collect some of the $2 billion for Wi-Fi and high-speed Internet by raising taxes.

"It always seems to be easier for some people to take more money from American people via taxes and fees, rather than do the hard work," O'Rielly said. "If more money is justified for E-Rate, let's dig in and find offsets, not stick it to hardworking poor and middle-class Americans."

FCC Commission Ajit Pai, shared O'Rielly's sentiments. Even with the E-Rate program's reported $600 million in reserves and FCC's plans to redirect the program's spending away from dated technology, Pai said the numbers didn't add up.

"The FCC has forfeited this opportunity for real, bipartisan reform of the E-rate program," said Pai. "In five months, maybe six, we'll be back at this table to talk about how much to raise [U.S. consumer phone bills.]"

Spending aside, the methodology of FCC's Wi-Fi initiative for E-Rate was called into question in a letter drafted by Democratic senators Jay Rockefeller, of West Virginia, and Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Edward Markey, of Massachusetts. The letter stated that drawing funding away from older technologies would only hurt students and library patrons in rural areas.

"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 Internet connectivity," the letter stated.

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