Markey Challenges FCC on Modernizing Classroom Internet Access

Markey believes that proposed FCC reforms may jeopardize existing internet access in classrooms and libraries.
Markey believes that proposed FCC reforms may jeopardize existing internet access in classrooms and libraries.
Kayana Szymczak/The Boston Globe

Almost two decades ago, US Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., marshalled members of Congress behind a new program designed to prepare American students for the 21st century.

The program was called E-Rate, an offshoot of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which provided a mechanism to bring internet access to classrooms and libraries.

The Federal Communications Commission plans to vote later this week on reforms aimed at modernizing the program. Markey, however, has raised qualms about the proposed reforms, saying that they are not extensive enough.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

He and John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia—both staunch liberals who sit on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation—penned a letter to the chairman of the FCC Wednesday, outlining concerns about the way that those reforms would be funded.

The veteran lawkmakers hope to encourage the FCC to consider drastically increasing the funding allocated to the program.

At the time the Telecommunications Act was passed, only 14 percent of classrooms nationwide had access to the Internet , but the number of connected classrooms has since swelled under the auspices of E-Rate to include almost every classroom today.

Now however, many of those systems are antiquated.

The FCC has proposed reforms to upgrade existing systems and install classroom Wi-Fi. According to former FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski and Commissioner of the Leading Education by Advancing Digital Commission Jim Coulter, the upgrades would impact six million students over the course of the upcoming year and tens of millions in the future.

The proposal put before the FCC would allocate an initial $2 billion for Wi-Fi installations and then an additional $3 billion for improved broadband access, Genachowski and Coulter noted in a recent Washington Post article.

The first installment would come from what Genachowski and Coulter call “unnecessary reserves.” The second would come from future savings taken from modernizations, such as removing outdated and inefficient technology.

Drafters of the proposal likely hope to avoid the Republican pushback that would undoubtedly ensue if the FCC asked to increase funding.

But the proposal may already face substantial pushback from within the FCC itself. FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai has said that the FCC cannot afford the Wi-Fi updates at the proposed rates.

Markey and Rockefeller fall on the opposite side of the debate. They believe that the proposal does not do enough to raise funding.

Their letter argues that refraining from increasing funding could prove disastrous for existing internet infrastructure.

“Basic broadband connections for our schools and libraries that rely on E-Rate are in jeopardy,” they wrote in their letter.

The cost of Wi-Fi is already slated to increase, straining existing funding. A reallocation of funds away from what Genachowski and Coulter call “unnecessary reserves” may jeopardize the basic broadband services already in place.

Markey and Rockefeller conclude that “the permanent funding cap for the E-Rate program needs to be raised” to move past the dial-up era. The cap now stands at $2.4 billion a year.

“The proposal you are considering does not appear to address permanent funding changes to put the E-Rate program on a solid financial foundation for the future,” they wrote to the FCC. “The need for additional long-term funding for this program demands action.”