Policy | News

FCC Vote Approves $1 Billion for Broadband, Defers Discussion of Raising Funding Cap

On Friday, the FCC voted to approve reforms to its E-rate program. The 3-2 vote was divided down party lines, with the commission’s two Republicans vocally objecting to the proposed changes. The approved reforms free up $1 billion per year to get WiFi to students. The funding will come from unused money already in the program and funds previously allocated to traditional telecom services such as telephones and pagers.

EducationSuperHighway, a nonprofit organization dedicated to enabling Internet access in American classrooms, applauded the FCC’s vote but acknowledged that the struggle to improve connectivity in schools is far from settled. CEO Evan Marwell said, “This first step marks significant progress towards improving access for all schools, but we still have work to do to bring affordable broadband to every school and library and ensure equal educational opportunity for all of America’s students.”

Friday’s vote also approved a so-called “safety valve” provision, which was adopted in response to educators' concerns that the FCC’s original proposal would have inadvertently hurt schools in poor or rural areas by funding WiFi instead of much-needed external broadband connections. The safety valve guarantees that if, in any year, there is not enough funding for “priority 1” external connections and to provide the $1 billion allotted to WiFi, the external connections will come first.

The FCC did not raise the cap on E-rate funding, stating that it would consider raising the cap in a separate rule-making session in the near future. The International Society for Technology in Education, which launched its #RaiseTheErateCap campaign in June, issued the following statement: “We applaud the Commission’s conviction to doing what’s right for education and launch a serious conversation about change the E-rate truly does need: more funding. Our community has spoken and the need for additional support is real. The Commission did the right thing today by issuing a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on the E-rate funding cap. We hope that a final decision on increasing the program’s annual funding cap will come quickly.”

In his statement on behalf of The National Education Association, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel welcomed the reforms as a "two-year test," adding, “But if we are serious about ensuring equity in our schools, all the demand for ongoing Internet connectivity must be met — especially in high-needs schools.... Today’s vote is an important step in realizing the potential of the E-rate Program and to ensure all schools and libraries have robust broadband capacity, but there is a lot of work to be done.”

About the Author

Julia Sufrin is a contributing writer based in Los Angeles.

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