FCC chairman Tom Wheeler has secured enough votes to pass his proposed E-rate reforms at today's meeting, according to an agency official speaking on background. that will almost certainly be on a straight party line vote.
E-rate is the Universal Service Fund subsidy that goes to provide advanced telecommunications to schools and libraries.
In the wake of concerns from the Hill and elsewhere about the migration of E-rate funding to wireless broadband and its impact on funding of traditional broadband connectivity, the order is now said to include a "safety valve" that makes sure that support for that basic service is not eroded by Wi-Fi demand.
The commission will seek comment on long-term funding for the program, and include an evaluation of the Wi-Fi migration as part of that long-term review.
Republican commissioner Ajit Pai has been vocal about his opposition to the item and billions in Wi-Fi investment he said could expand the fund while shortchanging basic connectivity, especially in rural areas. In addition, House members and Senators from both sides of the aisle wrote to express concerns about prioritizing Wi-Fi, including Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.), who helped create the program and is the former boss and mentor to FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, whose vote the chairman needs to pass the item unless he could get a Republican vote for the proposal.
The E-rate item puts it on a path to an all-broadband subsidy by phasing out phone and other legacy services--like pagers--freeing up $2 billion for Wi-Fi.
The new rules fully commit the E-rate program to an all-broadband future, one of the Chairman’s major objectives, by transitioning traditional phone and other legacy services out of the program over the next several years. The FCC will pay for the Wi-Fi push by freeing up $2 billion in excess reserves and phasing down support for non-broadband services such as pagers and helping schools and libraries be more efficient in their purchasing practices.