Federal Q&A

FCC Chairman Lays Out Vision for E-Rate, Net Neutrality for Schools

By Sean Cavanagh — July 03, 2014 9 min read
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Tom Wheeler is leading the Federal Communications Commission at a time when the agency is poised to make decisions that could affect schools for years to come—through an overhaul of the E-rate program, and through the decisions the FCC will make on “net neutrality,” or the idea of a free and open Internet.

The FCC chairman, who was named to the post by President Obama last year, recently released a blueprint for retooling the E-rate, the federal program that supports telecommunications across schools and libraries. Wheeler’s plan calls for devoting an additional $2 billion to support Wi-Fi connections over the next two years. The plan would also make a series of structural changes that Wheeler argues will streamline the funding flow and ensure that federal money supports cutting-edge, rather than antiquated, technologies.

The FCC is expected to vote on that plan, the full details of which have not been released publicly, at its open meeting on July 11.

The commission also recently put forward a notice of proposed rulemaking that it says is designed to protect and promote an open Internet. The FCC was responding to a decision by a U.S. appeals court that was interpreted as giving commercial Internet providers more power to set conditions on delivering content before it reaches customers.

Critics, including some school and library officials, fear that the FCC’s proposed standards would allow Internet service providers to charge deep-pocketed online content providers more for access to a “fast lane” reaching online users, while education-content providers, and K-12 systems, who rely on Web-based school materials, would get stuck in a slow lane. Wheeler has said those worries are misguided.

I interviewed Wheeler, a former business executive and cable and telecom industry official, this week in his office on the 8th floor of the FCC, in downtown Washington.

Q: There are a number of standards by which one could judge the success of the E-rate program. Assuming your proposal for changing the E-rate becomes policy, how will you know—say, three or five years from now—if your proposed policy was successful?

A: The important thing is that we are in a technology continuum. I go back to the days when I was involved in using analog, cellular technology ... to deliver access to the Internet to schools. ‘Wow, that was exciting!’ ... and I was proud that I was a part of that. The definition of success will be if we’re keeping up with technology. What the E-rate has done through its almost two-decade life is to evolve, first from dial-up connectivity to the computer lab down the hall, then to the connection to the classroom, and now connection to the student. And so success at the end of the day will be, are we allowing individual students and their teachers to be able to take advantage of what technology enables? You can do it at Starbucks—why can’t you do it in the classroom?

Q: Since becoming chairman, what’s most impressed you about the E-rate program, and what’s most disappointed you?

A: I’m not a newcomer to the E-rate program. [Wheeler talks about his involvement in early days of the E-rate, under then-FCC chairman Reed Hundt.] I’ve watched it through its multiple iterations. The nature of this agency is, how do you deal with technological innovation? I don’t care if it’s digital television or cell phones or the Internet, whatever the case may be. And E-rate hasn’t had that kind of attention for the last 18 years. And so what it’s accomplished has been terrific, but I think it can accomplish more. That’s what we’re setting out to do.

Q: Your proposal calls for putting $2 billion in additional funding toward school and library Wi-Fi over the next two years. Some critics, including the nation’s two biggest teachers’ unions, say that far more money needs to be put into the program than you proposed. Some have urged that the program’s overall funding be doubled, to about $5 billion. You’ve resisted taking that step so far. Why did you feel that raising the overall pool of money wasn’t the right way to go, up front?

A: I’ve talked about a logical progress throughout the overall program. So I came in and we took a look at accounting procedures in the [Universal Service Administrative Company, which administers the E-rate] and discovered that there was $2 billion that could be put to work. Now, people, say, ‘Well, that was already there.’ My definition is, money doesn’t work unless it’s spent. ...Things were structured in such a way that it couldn’t be spent.

So we found $2 billion, which was enough to [improve the] services for 20 million kids. Then we looked at the functioning of the overall E-rate program, and you attack three things. One, that Wi-Fi gets ignored. You go to this evolution, from the computer lab to [Wi-Fi]. Yet we spent zero on Wi-Fi last year, and a pittance the year before. So we’ve got to close the Wi-Fi gap. [Then] we look at, how do we make the whole E-rate program fairer, so that it reaches more schools? Not just with Wi-Fi, but with basic connectivity. Then the third issue is how do we make the program more efficient, in terms of the schools themselves and how the administrative process at USAC works, which certainly could stand some improvement, but also, how do you make sure the dollars go as far as they possibly can?

Q: Not long after you became chairman, you spoke about the importance of scouring the E-rate program for savings, before pushing for any kind of a major, overall funding increase. Was your reasoning on that issue based on a conviction that there was waste within the E-rate program that needed to be addressed, first, or was your position a political calculation based on your idea that you had to build support for big changes over time, make sure the public buys in, and show them money can be saved, first?

A: I don’t think it’s either. I’m a businessman. I started my own companies. Before I was here, I spent a decade as a venture capitalist. And I took a business-like approach to this. Let’s look at what the challenge is. And let’s ask the question, ‘Are we achieving the right goals?’ And then, ‘How can we achieve a 21st Century set of goals?’ And that began with, are we doing our accounting correctly? Are we prioritizing the right kinds of things? Are we getting the most efficiency out of each dollar spent? And any businessperson always says, ‘Ok, let’s take a look at what we’ve got, let’s figure out if it’s sufficient, and if it’s not, let’s do something about it. And so I’m taking that step-wise, logical progression, from the first day I spoke on this issue.

Q: One of the other concerns raised by some of these education organizations is that the FCC will approve a change in the way that funds are distributed that reduces the E-rate’s emphasis on serving the highest-need populations, or those in rural areas. Do they have something to worry about?

A: No. This will remain a poverty-based program. Rural schools will receive more than they have, heretofore ... both in terms of Wi-Fi funding, of which they’re now getting zippo, and in terms of the increased efficiencies of the basic connectivity program.

I’ll give you an example. I was at another Indian reservation a couple months ago, in South Dakota, in the poorest county in America. And I was at a school there called Little Wound, just down the road from Wounded Knee. I was meeting with the principal and the person responsible for IT there. They said, ‘We have to have to-each-student connectivity. We couldn’t get it out of the E-rate program, because there’s nothing available for rural schools like us for Wi-Fi connectivity, so we went out and did it ourselves. They shared with me the numbers that they did it for, the cost. The costs were less than we’ll have in our order, for what schools are going to be able to get.

One of the things that was really exciting to me is that this order is going to contain something we’ve never done in the E-rate program, and I don’t think has been done in many government programs. ... Every school in America is going to be able to purchase Wi-Fi equipment at GSA rates—the rates of the largest purchaser of equipment in the world. And Little Wound school ... had to go down the street and buy it off the shelf, and they were still able to do it for less than we’re going to be proposing in this order. So I think there is a great opportunity for all schools, but in particular the rural and hardest-hit schools.

[Later in the interview, Wheeler points out that numerous other organizations and policymakers have come out in support of his plans. “There is a serious list of people who have a responsibility to make sure that education is in the 21st Century who are saying, ‘hey, this approach the FCC is taking is the right approach.”]

Q: Another big issue on your plate is net-neutrality. There’s a concern among some school officials that whatever the FCC does on this issue, providers of online content to schools will end up in an Internet “slow lane,” and not be able to receive the kind of online classroom resources they need. How concerned should K-12 officials be they’ll end up in the slow lane?

A: We are strong supporters, I am a strong supporter, of an open Internet. I’ve been a business person and an entrepreneur who has started companies. ... I’ve been a [venture capitalist] who was buying companies that would only succeed if the Internet was open. This whole issue of paid prioritization, of fast lanes and slow lanes—schools are not going to have to worry about this.

There is clear authority that we have, and we’re not about to increase the connectivity of schools with the E-rate program, and then turn around and gut it through some kind of a rule that makes schools second-class citizens, or makes educational content second-class content. There is one Internet. When you sign up for the Internet, when a school signs up for the Internet, they get full access to that entire Internet, at the speeds at which they’ve contracted, without any blocking, without any preference for this service or that service because the service provider may own that service, without any degrading of their service, so that somebody else can get some kind of super-duper service.

I am adamant on the importance of the open Internet, and the thing that concerns me is today, there are no rules in place, and that the exact kind of thing that you worry about can happen today. And that’s why I’m going to move on these open-Internet rules and make sure that it can’t.

Q: So you’re saying K-12 schools, under the plan you put forward, are not going to have to worry about having their content restricted in any way.

A: The open Internet is open. Period. End of discussion. The court talked about the ‘virtuous cycle’ of the Internet that was our job to protect. And that says content drives delivery, [Wheeler makes a slow, circular motion with his hand] that drives better content, that drives better delivery. And that our job is to make sure that this happens. Educational content is what is driving the need for this kind of 100 megabit, and Wi-Fi connectivity, which is—guess what—going to drive better educational content, which is going to increase the need to a gig.

And we are not about to let anyone get into that and disadvantage schools by playing around with the ability of schools to get open access to everything that’s on the Internet.

Photo: Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler in his Washington office.
--Stephen Voss for Education Week

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