Now in her second stint on the Federal Communications Commission—and her first as a member of the minority party—long-time school-technology booster Jessica Rosenworcel has a host of concerns about what the agency’s direction means for schools.
Not surprisingly, many of those concerns center around efforts by the commission’s new Republican majority to undo the reforms of their Democratic predecessors, including last month’s controversial decision to roll back rules on “net neutrality.”
“I’m really committed to improving digital equity,” Rosenworcel said. “I’m worried that the current FCC is not.”
Rosenworcel talked with Education Week Wednesday evening at a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the E-rate program, which helps schools and libraries cover the cost of internet access and other telecommunications services.
(FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, appointed by President Trump to head the commission in January and the architect of many of the moves Rosenworcel opposes, has declined numerous Ed Week requests for an interview.)
The conversation with Rosenworcel covered the future of the E-Rate; recent changes to the Lifeline program, which helps low-income families pay for phone and broadband service; and the FCC’s net neutrality decision, a move critics have said could hurt K-12 schools by relegating free online educational content to so-called “slow lanes” and hindering the ability of education startups to bring new innovations to the classroom.
Here are five highlights:
1. Rosenworcel believes recent Lifeline changes have particularly high stakes for students.
Over the past year, Chairman Pai has led a number of efforts to scale back the Lifeline program, including revoking eligibility for a number of broadband providers, limiting Lifeline support on Tribal lands, and restricting program support for a variety of Wi-Fi services, including those not providing 3G-level support and those offering “mobile hot-spots” that cannot be accessed at a user’s home residence.
The commission also proposed a number of additional changes to the program, including a potential budget cap.
What will all that mean for students and schools?
“I think the stakes are really high,” said Rosenworcel, who has long championed an expansive version of the Lifeline program as a means of ensuring that students have reliable internet access at home, so they can complete homework that is increasingly assigned online.
“I am really upset that we are looking at saying to wireless carriers that they don’t need to have Wi-Fi-enabled phones, or phones with tethering capability, both of which are really important for students connecting to the internet,” she said.
2. In K-12, the rollback of net neutrality is primarily a long-term concern, especially for rural schools, Rosenworcel said.
Rosenworcel has been harshly critical of the FCC’s party-line December vote (which she voted against, as a member of the minority party) to roll back its previous net neutrality rules (also approved in a party-line vote, with Rosenworcel supporting as a member of the majority party.) Under the new rules, broadband providers will no longer be required to treat all online content equally; instead, they can prioritize or throttle some content, an approach that proponents say will foster innovation and expand consumer choice.
Now that the vote is history, Rosenworcel is encouraging efforts by Congress and state lawmakers to reverse, or at least weaken the impact of, the new rules—even though it remains to be seen if those efforts can withstand legal challenges.
“I’m glad to see states and governors and others pick up the pieces and try to fix what I think the FCC broke,” Rosenworcel said. “The momentum they are creating is really important.”
In the short term, Rosenworcel doesn’t expect newly-unleashed internet service providers to take any dramatic steps that would adversely affect schools.
“I think they’ll be careful in the near term,” she said. “I don’t think they want to risk a backlash.”
But long term, Rosenworcel said, she does worry that ISPs will start prioritizing certain online services, “including educational services with which they might have pay-for-play deals.”
That would be particularly problematic for the hundreds of rural districts that don’t have any choice in broadband provider, she said.
3. The fight over E-rate is about “sustaining gains.”
Rosenworcel highlighted the “extraordinary” improvements in school connectivity in recent years, which she attributed to the FCC’s decision—in 2014, under Democratic leadership—to overhaul the program.
“I think great programs don’t thrive without continuous attention and care,” she said. “My primary focus now is on sustaining the gains we made.”
Since the change in FCC leadership, many in the K-12 ed-tech arena have been skittish about the possibility of changes to the program, including a possible reduction in the E-rate’s $3.9 billion annual spending cap, potential changes to the formula for distributing E-rate funds, and rumors that hundreds of millions of dollars in as-yet untapped “Category 2" funds, which are used for Wi-Fi networks and equipment, could be vulnerable.
Asked how worried the K-12 sector should be about such scenarios, Rosenworcel said only that she would fight to make sure current E-rate funding levels are sustained.
And asked whether she believes Chairman Pai and the commission’s two other Republican members remain fully committed to the E-rate, Rosenworcel demurred.
“The only thing I know is I am deeply committed to its sustainability,” she said. “I think it is the most powerful educational technology program we have.”
4. Still, follow the (universal-service) money, Rosenworcel advised.
In April, the Universal Service Administrative Company, a quasi-governmental entity that administers the FCC’s funds to promote universal access to telecommunications, quietly announced that it was moving more than $9 billion in universal-service funds out of private banks and into the U.S. Treasury. The Government Accountability Office had recommended the move, the result of a scathing audit of the Lifeline program.
Rosenworcel said that raises a host of concerns, including that E-rate and other funds could be “raided” for other purposes, subject to the whims of Congress, and that the FCC will be losing tens of millions of dollars annually in interest income.
“The great power of universal-service programs, including E-rate, is that they are exempt from the annual appropriations process,” she said. “That allows them to be sustainable over time.”
5. And the E-rate delays and denials being experienced by rural schools need to get fixed, she said.
Over the past year, Education Week has been paying close attention to the frustrations of rural schools seeking to take advantage of the 2014 E-rate rules to build or lease their own high-speed fiber-optic networks.
As we reported in October, these applications have been delayed and denied at exceptionally high rates—a pattern that would seem to be at odds with Chairman Pai’s stated priorities of streamlining the E-rate bureaucracy and improving broadband access in rural America.
It remains unclear whether this pattern is the result of an unspoken shift in the FCC’s approach, or just bureaucratic red tape at USAC.
Rosenworcel was adamant that the situation needs to improve, saying she hopes “we can expedite what’s before USAC right now and make sure those schools get the answers we need in a timely way.”
She also issued a stern reminder that the FCC’s policy on E-rate special construction projects has not changed.
“I want to make sure that those who get to make decisions about [E-rate] funding follow the laws, rules, and policies we have on the books today,” she said.
“It’s not acceptable if our administrator changes policies mid-course. The commission has policies from its prior orders on our books, and it’s imperative that we follow them.”
Photo: Federal Communication Commission (FCC) Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel takes her seat before the start of their open hearing and vote on Net Neutrality in Washington on Feb. 26, 2015.--Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP-File
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.