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