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FCC Defends School Wi-Fi Plan as Teachers Unions Complain

More funding is needed, not just shifting around funds to pay for Wi-Fi, unions say.


Federal Communications Commission officials defended a recently announced plan to spend $2 billion for Wi-Fi networks at public schools after teachers unions complained it wasn’t enough money and could hurt poorer schools by shifting funds away to wealthier areas.

The unions and other educational groups don’t think the proposal is the best way to move forward with improving the availability of high-speed Internet in schools and libraries.

“Certainly some groups have raised some concerns. Equally, many, many superintendents and people who are in the front line of schools and build these networks … have been very favorable about the idea that there is actually money available for Wi-Fi,” said FCC Managing Director Jon Wilkins, during a call with reporters Tuesday. “Last year nobody got any (financial) support for Wi-Fi. We want to do better than that.”

The money for the E-Rate program comes from a fee that is charged on consumers’ phone bills, called a Universal Service Fund (USF) fee. Last year, the government spent $8.2 billion from the Universal Service Fund, which has grown steadily over time. The fund is also used to subsidize phone and Internet connections in rural areas.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler recently announced the plan to devote $2 billion in funds to subsidize Wi-Fi connections in schools and libraries over the next two years. Agency officials said they’d come up with the money by eliminating wasteful spending in the current program. Currently, most of the E-Rate funds go to pay for high-speed Internet connections or telecommunications services to schools and libraries. The agency didn’t say how it would continue to fund Wi-Fi networks after that initial $2 billion commitment was exhausted.

The FCC’s plan doesn’t go far enough because it doesn’t increase the amount of funding available to schools and will change the formula for how money is allocated, the National Education Association, National PTA and 11 other educational and union organizations complained.

The groups have “strong concerns” about Wheeler’s plan because it will “only dilute an already over-subscribed (program)” that they say is already “vastly underfunded.”

The educational groups are concerned about a possible move to an allocation formula that would work on a per-pupil basis, instead of the current formula, which takes location and the local poverty level more into account.

To ease some of those concerns, the FCC released a report Tuesday showing how the extra funding would be distributed among the states. The agency also released a Q&A with answers to questions that aides there say they’ve gotten from educators.

The agency is scheduled to vote on the proposal July 11.

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