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FCC Nominee Appears Before Senate Commerce Committee

Thomas Wheeler, the Obama administration's pick to chair the Federal Communications Commission, pledged Tuesday to support changes to the E-rate that would boost schools' Web connectivity, in a hearing before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation on his nomination.

Wheeler's appearance before the committee comes about two weeks after the White House released a proposal calling on the FCC to retool the E-rate program and provide it with more money, with the goal of bringing high-speed broadband and wireless Internet access to nearly all the nation's schools within five years.

Administration officials have said they expect any such changes would make to be proposed by the FCC through a rulemaking process.

"It doesn't make sense that 80 percent of E-rate schools report the available bandwidth is below their instructional needs," Wheeler said in his opening remarks. He was a citing a figure put forward by the Lead Commission, a group made up of current and former public and private sector officials advocating for improved technology access.

The chairman of the committee, Sen. John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, a Democrat and longtime supporter of the E-rate program, said the FCC as dealing with some of the most complicated issues pending since Congress' passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, but said the agency has become "increasingly polarized and politicized," and that "some even question its relevance in a digital age."

The FCC plays an important role in protecting consumers and boosting access to technology, including through the E-rate, which has been a "transformational power of information," Rockefeller argued. He asked Wheeler to back improvements to the program.

Wheeler's initial response (the hearing was interrupted when Senators were called to a vote), while brief, would probably hearten backers of an E-rate overhaul. A former wireless and cable-industry official, Wheeler noted that E-rate was created in seventeen years ago, and that the public and policymakers wouldn't tolerate using textbooks from that era in schools.

"I don't think it's good enough for us to have 1996 technology in the classroom," he said.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a Republican from New Hampshire, raised broader questions about the equity of the program that funds the E-rate, the Universal Service Fund, which she said is not doing enough to improve technology in rural communities. She asked Wheeler to work to fix what she called "a very inequitable program."

"There are many areas of my state that don't have broadband access," said Ayotte, who voiced frustration about "how little return on investment my constituents get."

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