Rockefeller, Markey Concerned With FCC's E-Rate Revamp

Warn Chairman Against Putting Too Much Funding Into WiFi

WASHINGTON — Two of the co-authors of the federal E-rate subsidy program have cautioned Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler not to shift too much money to wireless support if it means "cannibalizing" funding for basic connectivity, and suggested that any WiFi funding migration be a two-year test-project.

The E-rate subsidy provides funds — paid by telecom providers and, ultimately, their customers — for advanced telecommunications to schools and libraries.

In a letter to the chairman, Sens. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.) praised Wheeler’s plans for cutting red tape and updating the program, but said they had "serious concerns" about some aspects of the proposal, which will move billions of dollars to support WiFi services and phase out traditional support for non-broadband services.

Markey and Rockefeller said they agreed that WiFi could be a boon, but that its impact could not be felt if there were no broadband to support it. They said changes to the fund should be “carefully balanced.”

“Efforts to make WiFi technology ubiquitous in our schools and libraries cannot come at the expense of the already limited funding that keeps these institutions connected," the senators said in the letter.

The senators also warned against using per-student or per-square-foot funding calculations, opposing the use of such mechanisms in "any aspect of E-rate." Schools and libraries in urban and rural areas share their concerns, the senators added.

A number of educational groups, including teachers’ unions and the National Parent Teacher Association, have expressed concerns with the WiFi migration and phase-out of traditional support, as has Ajit Pai, the FCC’s senior Republican. Pai has expressed concerns that rural schools and libraries will receive less funding than urban institutions.

A vote is scheduled for Friday (June 11) on the proposed revamp of the E-rate subsidy, though an FCC official said the chairman was still considering input on the item.

Wheeler has said that expanding the E-rate program to fund WiFi connectivity "will empower students and library patrons to use the latest education technology to access new learning opportunities and infinite worlds of information.”