Ed-Tech Policy

Ajit Pai, Net Neutrality Foe and Critic of E-Rate Policies, Named FCC Chair

By Sean Cavanagh — January 23, 2017 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print


UPDATED

By Sean Cavanagh and Benjamin Herold

President Donald Trump has appointed Ajit Pai, a determined critic of recent decisions to overhaul the E-rate program and protect “net neutrality,” to chair the Federal Communications Commission, an agency that wields sweeping powers over the telecommunications sector.

Pai, a Republican, has been a commissioner on the FCC since being appointed by then-President Barack Obama in 2012. Pai will replace Tom Wheeler, a Democrat who shepherded broad changes touching schools and libraries nationwide.

“I look forward to working with the new administration, my colleagues at the commission, members of Congress, and the American public to bring the benefits of the digital age to all Americans,” Pai said in a short statement issued following Trump’s decision.

In recent years, the FCC has taken dramatic—and according to many school officials, overdue—steps to financially support the E-rate program, which subsidizes telecommunications services for public schools and libraries. The commission in late 2014 voted to increase the program’s annual spending cap from $2.4 billion to $3.9 billion, as well as to approve a host of regulatory changes aimed at prioritizing broadband and Wi-Fi, phasing out federal support for older technologies, and providing more options to rural schools.

Pai, in remarks made during a December 2014 FCC vote to expand and attempt to modernize the E-rate, said he backed the program’s mission. But he cast the changes approved by the FCC majority as financially irresponsible and doing too little to help many of the nation’s communities--particularly in rural areas.

The FCC’s action, Pai argued, was a missed opportunity to specifically channel money to rural schools and libraries, and would allow large and urban districts to soak up too much of the E-rate’s new funding. The commission also was failing to eliminate subsidies to E-rate applicants that encourage wasteful spending, overlooking policies that favor wealthy applicants, doing little to ensure the cost-effectiveness of the projects the program supports, supports, Pai said at the time.

“I still believe that ‘E-rate is a program worth fighting for,’” Pai said.

“And so the students and teachers, parents and school boards, librarians and library patrons I’ve spoken with will have to wait for the bold solutions that could help them. For now, they’ll just have to contribute more to the E-Rate program and get less out of it. They’ll continue to be trapped in a bureaucracy that makes the IRS look user-friendly.”

Earlier this month, broadband-advocacy group EducationSuperHighway released new data showing significant improvements in school connectivity, fueled in large part by the changes. Nearly 90 percent of U.S. districts are now meeting the FCC’s minimum connectivity targets.

Urged on by a mammoth surge of public interest, the Wheeler-led FCC in 2015 also approved steps to preserve “net neutrality,” a term used to describe the idea of a free and open internet in which web traffic is delivered under equal conditions, regardless of the source of the content.

Without net neutrality, consumer advocates fear that telecommunications companies would allow content providers to “throttle up” their services, essentially creating a fast lane for wealthy buyers, while relegating others with less means to a slow lane. Some school officials feared the online academic materials they rely on would get bottlenecked.

Trump gets to pick the chair of the five-member FCC, and the post does not require Senate approval.

Pai was one of two Republicans on the five-member commission to vote against changes to the E-rate in December 2014. He argued that the commission had done too little to check waste and fraud in the program. Pai also argued that Wheeler and his supporters were dismissive of the impact of increasing the fees on consumers’ phone bills that are used to fund the E-rate and other universal-service programs.

While the increased bills might not matter much in affluent communities, Pai said, “the rest of Americans are sick of being nickel-and-dimed.”

Ultimately, he argued, the policy “pours money into a broken system.”

As speculation that Pai might get Trump’s nod as FCC chair increased, some ed-tech supporters have questioned whether he might seek to scale back the E-rate’s recent spending increases. Others believe the program’s recent successes, as well as active bipartisan support at the state level, make any dramatic changes unlikely.

It appears almost certain, however, that big changes are coming on net neutrality. Pai was an ardent opponent of the FCC’s recent rulings on the issue, describing them as government intrusion into the market, stifling for business, and hurtful for consumers.

In adopting net neutrality, the FCC “seize[d] unilateral authority to regulate internet conduct to direct where internet service providers make their investments, and to determine what service plans will be available to the American public,” Pai wrote.

His ascension to the helm of the FCC drew alarmed reactions from backers of net neutrality, such as Free Press President and CEO Craig Aaron, whose organization strongly supported the FCC’s decision.

“Millions of Americans from across the political spectrum have looked to the FCC to protect their rights to connect and communicate and cheered decisions like the historic net neutrality ruling,” Aaron said, “and Pai threatens to undo all of that important work.”

(Jan. 24). This post has been updated with additional information on Pai’s comments on FCC E-rate policy.

Photo: Federal Communication Commission Commissioner Ajit Pai speaks during an open hearing and vote on Net Neutrality last February in Washington.--Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP-File


See also:


for the latest news on ed-tech policies, practices, and trends.

Related Tags:

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


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
What’s Next for Teaching and Learning? Key Trends for the New School Year
The past 18 months changed the face of education forever, leaving teachers, students, and families to adapt to unprecedented challenges in teaching and learning. As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Curriculum Webinar
How Data and Digital Curriculum Can Drive Personalized Instruction
As we return from an abnormal year, it’s an educator’s top priority to make sure the lessons learned under adversity positively impact students during the new school year. Digital curriculum has emerged from the pandemic
Content provided by Kiddom
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Ed-Tech Policy Opinion Why Are We Turning Our Backs on Remote Learning?
Neither the detractors nor defenders of remote learning are fully in the right, argues one superintendent.
Theresa Rouse
5 min read
Illustration of girl working on computer at home.
Getty
Ed-Tech Policy Letter to the Editor Using E-Rate to Address the Homework Gap
The FCC's E-rate program can provide relief to many families, says this letter author from the Internet Society.
1 min read
Ed-Tech Policy Q&A Acting FCC Chair: The 'Homework Gap' Is an 'Especially Cruel' Reality During the Pandemic
Under the new leadership of Jessica Rosenworcel, the FCC is exploring broadening the E-Rate to cover home-connectivity needs.
5 min read
Internet connectivity doesn't reach all the houses
Vanessa Solis/Education Week and iStock/Getty
Ed-Tech Policy Millions of Students Got Free Home Internet for Remote Learning. How Long Will It Last?
Time and money are running out on temporary agreements between districts and ISPs. Broadband advocates want a federal solution.
10 min read
Cupped hands hold a precious wi-fi symbol
Vanessa Solis/Education Week and Digital Vision Vectors/Getty