Equity & Diversity

FCC Chair to Step Down; Championed E-Rate Reform, Net Neutrality

By Benjamin Herold — December 15, 2016 3 min read
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Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler will step down next month, leaving a significant legacy on issues of concern to K-12 educators and creating uncertainty about what direction the commission might take under new Republican leadership.

“Serving as FCC Chairman during this period of historic technological change has been the greatest honor of my professional life,” Wheeler said in a statement. “It has been a privilege to work with my fellow commissioners to help protect consumers, strengthen public safety and cybersecurity, and ensure fast, fair and open networks for all Americans.”

Wheeler’s biggest impact on K-12 education came via a massive FCC overhaul of the federal E-rate program, which helps subsidize the cost of telecommunications services for public schools and libraries. Under Wheeler’s watch, the commission also expanded the federal Lifeline program to include subsidies for broadband service to low-income households, a move that many education and civil-rights groups cheered as a critical step to help close the “homework gap” experienced by children without home internet access. And in 2015, the commission voted to preserve “net neutrality,” easing concerns among some K-12 groups that online educational content might be relegated to internet “slow lanes.”

“Chairman Wheeler has been an incredible champion for America’s children,” said James P. Steyer, CEO of Common Sense Media, in a statement. “He’s led the way on major progress for kids in the classroom and at home.”

The biggest piece of that was around the E-rate.

After years of planning and wrangling, the commission in late 2014 approved a series of changes that raised the E-rate’s annual spending cap by more than 60 percent, to $3.9 billion per year, and shifted the program’s focus from legacy technologies to broadband and Wi-fi. As part of the effort, Wheeler and his fellow commissioners also approved a series of regulatory changes intended to increase price transparency, improve competition in the school-broadband market, and provide rural and remote schools with new options to find or build affordable broadband networks.

The changes have helped drastically reduce the number of students and schools without access to high-speed internet connections, while also helping bring the price of bandwidth down for schools.

In an interview with Education Week in November 2015, Wheeler described his reaction to getting the changes approved.

“We’ve had an awful lot of major policy issues that we’ve decided in the last couple of years,” he said. “One that I’m most proud of is the decision we made to reform and expand the E-rate program, because I’ve seen it in the kids.”

Wheeler’s resignation is no particular surprise; FCC chairs typically resign at the start of a new administration, allowing incoming presidents to select their own leaders.

But as with many federal agencies, the commission appears to be in line for an unusually big shakeup under President-elect Donald Trump. Republican lawmakers recently neglected to confirm Wheeler’s fellow Democratic commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel for a new term, meaning the FCC will initially move forward with a 2-1 Republican majority. Trump will also have considerable leeway to remake the commission in accordance with his own priorities.

Given the president-elect’s stated intent to slash government regulations and create a more friendly climate for business, as well as conservatives’ sharp disagreements with Chairman Wheeler over his agenda, big changes could be coming. Among the things to watch, said Doug Levin, a consultant with EdTech Strategies: attempts to roll back the net neutrality provision, recently enacted privacy protections, and spending increases for programs such as the E-rate and Lifeline.

“Under new leadership at the FCC, I think we can expect to see a reversal of universal service fee increases,” Levin said. “I also expect a significant increase in school audits in a search for potential waste, fraud, and abuse of E-rate funds.”

Photo: Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler said the push to expand and modernize the E-rate is paying dividends for schools across the country.—Stephen Voss for Education Week

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.