FCC E-Rate Decision Draws a Crowd

NCTA Applauds Extending Broadband, Some Concerned; Many Praise Move

The FCC drew plenty of reaction to its decision to expand the E-rate program, which subsidizes advanced telecommunications for schools and libraries, including to raise the cap on E-rate subsidies by up to 16 cents per phone line per month.

The FCC voted 3-2 to increase the cap on E-rate funding by $1.5 billion to $3.9 billion, with inflation escalations as well. Republicans called it an ill-targeted spending spree. Democrats called it the launch of a necessary digital upgrade for the nation's school kids, and Chairman Tom Wheeler called it a moral imperative.

Beyond the FCC there was much cheering from Democrats and schools and libraries and the tech companies that will be supplying that new capacity, but less enthusiasm from the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, which is also concerned about government-subsidized overbuilding.

“We appreciate the Commission’s efforts to expand the reach and speed of broadband, whether to places in rural America currently without broadband (through the Connect America Fund [CAF]) or to schools and libraries (through E-rate)," NCTA said in response to the E-rate item, as well as the FCC's vote on changes to CAF. "While we agree with and applaud these goals, we remain concerned that certain elements in today’s items may lead to wasteful and inefficient spending. As a result, we fully expect that the Commission and Congress will need to remain vigilant in reviewing the implementation of these programs to ensure that contributions paid by consumers to support universal service are spent wisely."

But the FCC was getting more green lights than caution signals.

“The Federal Communications Commission’s historic approval to dramatically increase funding for the E-Rate program is a critical and much-needed win for America’s students and it makes for smart public policy," said National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García. All of our students, regardless of their zip code, deserve access to the digital tools and the time to learn. Today’s action will go a long way to help level the digital playing field and ensuring equity.

"The National Hispanic Media Coalition (NHMC) commends the FCC for raising the cap of the E-Rate program to $3.9 billion. This is the first time the cap has been reset since it was initially set in 1997 at $2.25 billion," the group said in a statement. Ensuring that enough funding is available and that it is equitably distributed to both rural and urban school and libraries that need the support is an important and cost-effective investment in America's future and is a step towards ensuring that none of our children are left behind," it said.

"The FCC is tackling the capacity gap and providing a much-needed injection of funding in a program that that has become increasingly strained in recent years," said Danielle Kehl, policy analyst at New America's Open Technology Institute. "The latest changes will help schools and libraries meet the connectivity targets the FCC set this summer, ensuring that those institutions can meet the needs of their students and patrons today...and tomorrow."

“The FCC’s action today is a triumph for learning that reflects the world we live in and enables more personalized education," said Consortium for School Networking CEO Keith Krueger. "Raising the cap also ensures that more schools can achieve the broadband goals established by the Commission last July, including expanding Wi-Fi connections, robust networks and broadband speeds."

In July, an equally divided FCC voted to migrated the E-rate subsidy from traditional non-broadband services to broadband, and move from a focus on external broadband connections, to a focus on Wi-Fi connectivity to students, and on speed.

"Competition, competition, competition" is FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler's mantra. But one of the keys to that, in terms of broadband access, is speed, speed, speed.

"Today’s decision by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to increase funding for E-Rate represents a giant leap forward in fulfilling the goal of connecting every classroom in America to high-speed wireless Internet in the next five years," said Cisco, which supplies telecom equipment. "This is a truly landmark decision, the effects of which will be felt for a generation."

There were plenty of encouraging words from Capitol Hill, at least on the Democratic side.

“Today’s action by the FCC is a tremendous win for the future of our youngest generation and all future generations," said Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D- W. Va., who helped create the E-rate. "When I called upon the FCC to begin a process to strengthen E-Rate nearly two years ago, I knew that a cornerstone of that modernization effort would require additional funding for the program. That is why I have repeatedly called on the FCC to raise the permanent E-Rate cap. By increasing E-Rate’s cap by $1.5 billion, the FCC is making sure that schools and libraries will have access to broadband networks with next generation speeds and capacities. I am deeply appreciative to Chairman Wheeler for his absolute determination to modernize the program and make this critical funding a reality. I also thank Commissioner Rosenworcel for being a tireless champion of the program and Commissioner Clyburn for her essential role in moving this forward."

Rosenworcel was a top aide to Rockefeller and has been a leading voice for an E-rate 2.0 revamp that ups investment in the program and focuses on speed and wireless access.

“Today’s historic vote at the FCC represents a win for our children, our economy, and our future,” said Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.), a co-author of the program along with Rockefeller. “The E-Rate program is an essential part of our strategy to make our future workers best compete in the 21st century. By taking action today, the FCC officially commenced a bright new chapter for the already incredibly successful E-Rate program."

“The FCC took a monumental step today to bring E-Rate into the 21st century,” said Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.). “Funding for E-Rate was set during the days of dial-up Internet and in today’s digital world that level is simply inadequate. This boost will put into action a well-devised modernization plan to increase the presence of Wi-Fi in classrooms and bolster higher capacity Internet connections to our schools and libraries across the country.