LIVE@CoSN2024: Exclusive Coverage

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

FCC
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)

Other changes to the eRate enacted by the FCC include:

  • Allowing for multiple-year applications for services under a multi-year contract.
  • Eliminating the requirements for technology plans.
  • Allowing direct reimbursement of funds to applicants.
  • Extending the period that schools must retain eRate-related documents to 10 years.
  • Relaxing the bidding requirements for some smaller applications.
  • Requiring applicants to file electronic forms.
  • Prioritizing the review of consortia applications.

In addition, the FCC opened a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking seeking comment on the long-term funding needed to meet schools’ broadband needs.

The FCC voted 3-2 to adopt these changes, with the three Democrats on the panel approving them and the two Republicans opposing. Joining Wheeler in supporting the plan were commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel (who concurred in part). Commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly dissented.

In a statement, Pai said he was disappointed the FCC’s action did little to reduce the complexity of the eRate application process or address the “inequitable funding approach that gives many large, urban districts 90-percent discounts without limit.” He said the agency’s plan would only “exacerbate” the urban-rural eRate gap.

“Students and teachers … were promised eRate modernization.” Pai said. “They deserve a student-centered eRate program. And what does the FCC give them? The status quo.”

Rosenworcel said she was disappointed the FCC did not raise the annual funding cap in its July 11 decision. “I would have preferred to fix this [issue] here and now, instead of leaving it for a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking,” she wrote. “So on this aspect of today’s decision, I concur.”

Education groups expressed cautious optimism about the FCC ruling, saying it was a good first step toward modernizing the eRate.

“Today’s vote by the FCC represents an important early victory for students and educators [who] lack broadband and Wi-Fi access in their classrooms,” said Keith Krueger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking, in a statement.

“CoSN’s 2013 eRate and broadband survey revealed a massive Wi-Fi gap in many classrooms, so we’re very pleased the FCC dedicated meaningful funding for internal connections, while also maintaining a focus on broadband connections to the school door.

“CoSN also commends the FCC for approving a further notice focused on evaluating the program’s long-term funding needs. School districts cannot meet today’s Wi-Fi and broadband technology needs on a 1997 budget—and that will mean our nation must eventually invest more for this critical need.”

Follow Editorial Director Dennis Pierce on Twitter: @eSN_Dennis.

Sign up for our K-12 newsletter

Newsletter: Innovations in K12 Education
By submitting your information, you agree to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy.

Dennis Pierce

Want to share a great resource? Let us know at submissions@eschoolmedia.com.

New AI Resource Center
Get the latest updates and insights on AI in education to keep you and your students current.
Get Free Access Today!

"*" indicates required fields

Hidden
Hidden
Hidden
Hidden
Hidden
Hidden
Hidden
Hidden
Hidden
Hidden
Email Newsletters:

By submitting your information, you agree to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy.

eSchool News uses cookies to improve your experience. Visit our Privacy Policy for more information.