The U.S. Federal Communications Commission has just passed a new proposal for reallocation of resources in its program for support for internet and telecoms access for schools and libraries. However, the proposal has attracted strong and partisan criticism from both Republican and Democrat quarters, as well as independent institutions, and saw its target funding cut from $5 billion to $2 billion for the period 2016 to 2018.
According to the FCC’s own introduction, “the schools and libraries universal service support program, commonly known as the E-rate program, helps schools and libraries to obtain affordable telecommunications services, broadband Internet access and internal network connections.” The issue with the reallocation was the high proportion of E-rate – up to 50 percent – hitherto devoted to pagers, email systems, and other obsolescent technologies.
A large number of national educational and teaching bodies wrote a joint letter to the FCC prior to the vote, setting out their concerns over the proposal. “First, we are extremely concerned about the sustainability of the E-rate Program,” it said. “While nominal savings may be realized by eliminating legacy services and implementing additional efficiencies, we believe they will not add up to an additional $3 billion.” And it went on: “Second, we are concerned about the Commission’s intent to change the existing funding structure … We strongly believe that the E-rate Program must continue to distribute funds in an equitable way, based on need (calculated by level of poverty and locale), and not by a formula.”
Still, Republican-appointed FCC Commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly were quick to find fault and call for other offsets to fund the move, rather than raise taxes on working Americans and the middle class. Both dissented in the final 3:2 FCC vote.
“We know first-hand the tremendous, positive impact the E-rate has had in our classrooms and schools,” the joint letter concluded. “Without the E-rate, many of our schools would not be able to sustain on-going access to the Internet.”