Commissioners rip FCC's spendy school Wi-Fi plan

Republican members of the FCC question where $5 billion for schools and libraries will come from

A proposal by U.S. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler to pump billions of dollars into Wi-Fi deployment at schools and libraries has run into a snag, with the commission's two Republicans suggesting the money will come from U.S. residents' pocketbooks.

The commission is scheduled to vote Friday on Wheeler's proposal to revamp the agency's E-Rate program, but Republican Commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O'Rielly questioned where the money will come from. E-Rate, a 17-year-old program funded through telephone service fees, helps schools and libraries connect to the Internet.

Wheeler's plan to spend US$5 billion to improve Wi-Fi networks at schools and libraries over the next several years doesn't add up, Pai said in a statement released Tuesday.

Wheeler's plan "doesn't identify where the money will come from to fund this new program," he said. "As it stands, the proposal will blow a $2.7 billion hole in E-Rate's budget -- one that the FCC has promised outside parties it'll fill with a post-election increase in Americans' phone bills."

Pai complained that Wheeler's office has "rejected almost every suggestion that I made" to amend the program and find a compromise, he said. Wheeler "has no interest in seriously negotiating with Republican commissioners and is determined to pass this item" with votes from the commission's three Democrats, he added.

The FCC has said the money will come from E-Rate reserves. "Chairman Wheeler's five-year plan to expand Wi-Fi to all schools and libraries puts to work up to $2 billion in reserves, cuts costs and phases down non-broadband services in order to fund the expansion," an FCC spokesman said. "Going forward, Chairman Wheeler will assess whether the long-term funding of the program meets the demand of schools and libraries for high-speed Internet access."

Pai also raised concerns that the proposal doesn't give small, rural schools and libraries a "fair shake," instead directing most of the E-Rate funds to large, urban schools.

Wheeler's proposal will increase Wi-Fi funding for rural schools by 75 percent and urban schools by 60 percent, the FCC spokesman said.

O'Rielly, on Monday, questioned the long-term budget of the Universal Service Fund, the pool of money that funds E-Rate. The Congressional Budget Office projects the USF budget, about $8.5 billion in 2013, to grow to $10 billion in 2015 and $11 billion by 2024, he noted in a blog post.

"So what do [the] projections mean for the average American?" he wrote. "They represent an ever growing strain on their pocketbook. This cost is inevitably passed on to consumers in the form of a fee on their phone bills."

O'Rielly called on the FCC to offset any increases in E-Rate spending with budget cuts for other USF programs.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is grant_gross@idg.com.

This story, "Commissioners rip FCC's spendy school Wi-Fi plan" was originally published by IDG News Service .

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