Voting along party lines, the FCC approves more funding for Wi-Fi connectivity—but doesn’t raise the funding cap

The FCC’s vote marks an ‘important early victory’ for students, CoSN said.

In a split decision along party lines, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has voted to move ahead with a plan to modernize the eRate by increasing the amount of money available for high-speed internet access in schools.

The agency on July 11 approved a proposal by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler to retool the eRate to focus on expanding Wi-Fi connectivity within schools, without raising the program’s annual funding cap—which currently stands at $2.4 billion and is adjusted each year for inflation.

Under the new plan, the FCC will make available $2 billion in additional eRate funding over the next two years through “improved financial practices” that will free up excess funding reserves. This additional money will be designated for Wi-Fi equipment and distributed using a modified discount matrix of up to 85 percent, with a cap on requests.

For the following three years after that, the eRate will target $1 billion each year for Wi-Fi requests, while continuing to support the broadband connections that bring internet access into each building. To do this, the eRate will phase out support for non-broadband services, such as pagers and cell phones.

All told, the plan will mean $5 billion in funding targeted toward expanding Wi-Fi connectivity inside the nation’s schools and libraries over the next five years.

“While [the] eRate over its 18-year life has succeeded in connecting virtually all schools and libraries to the internet, it is not currently geared for today’s world of interactive, individualized digital learning,” the FCC said in a statement.

“By continuing to support broadband connectivity to the building while significantly expanding support for robust Wi-Fi networks within classrooms and libraries, [these] reforms can deliver the benefits of customized learning to students over tablets and laptops.”

(Next page: Other eRate changes—and reaction to the new FCC plan)

Dennis Pierce

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