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Republican FCC Commissioner Objects to Draft Plans for E-Rate

If a vote were held today on plans to overhaul the E-rate program, it sure sounds as if FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai would register a decisive "no."

The Republican commissioner on Tuesday released a sharply worded statement denouncing a draft Federal Communications Commission order to make changes to the federal program. He was weighing in on a document that has been circulated among the commission, but is not yet public, in anticipation of a vote scheduled for July 11.

"Any good math teacher would give the FCC's E-rate proposal an 'F' because the numbers just don't add up," Pai wrote in his statement, under a headline bemoaning a "Breakdown of E-rate Negotiations."

The commission is made up of three Democrats—chairman Tom Wheeler, and commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel—and two Republicans, Pai and Michael O'Rielly.

Pai argues that Wheeler has not made an earnest effort to incorporate the GOP commissioners' ideas into the majority's plan, but instead is "determined to pass this item on a party-line vote."

draft FCC plan supported by Wheeler calls for boosting Wi-Fi funding for schools and libraries by $2 billion, reducing support for non-broadband technologies, encouraging purchasing strategies to drive down technology prices, and speeding the E-rate application process, among other steps.

Pai has called for bringing much stricter financial accountability to the E-rate. He has also disputed the idea—espoused by some in the education community—that lack of funding is a core shortcoming with the federal program, which supports telecommunications improvements in schools and libraries, particularly in poor communities.

Wheeler has publicly resisted taking immediate steps to boost the overall size of the overall E-rate program, funded at about $2.4 billion a year, saying the agency needs to focus initially on streamlining its operations.

But Pai contends the FCC would not have the money to pay for even the proposed E-rate changes included in Wheeler's plan. Pai also implied that FCC officials were intent on waiting until after November's elections to try to raise funding for the E-rate, which is supported through fees on telecommunications providers that are passed on to consumers.

The draft plan would "blow a $2.7 billion hole in E-rate's budget," Pai stated, "one that the FCC has promised outside parties it'll fill with a post-election increase in Americans' phone bills."

In his statement, Pai also argued that the plan favors the needs of urban schools above rural schools, and increases the complexity of the application process, rather than cutting bureaucracy. (Wheeler, in a recent Q-and-A with Education Week, has vowed that the new E-rate policy will improve the program on many fronts, including doing more to meet rural schools' needs than the current program does.)

In a statement, FCC spokeswoman Kim Hart responded to Pai with a statement that said Wheeler's plan "puts to work up to $2 billion in reserves, cuts costs and phases down non-broadband services in order to fund the expansion."

"His proposal will increase WiFi funding for rural schools by 75 percent and urban schools by 60 percent," Hart said. "Going forward, Chairman Wheeler will assess whether the long-term funding of the program meets the demand of schools and libraries for high-speed Internet access."

The FCC's five commissioners are all appointed by the president, and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. The president also gets to pick the commission's chairman. That process gives President Obama—who has called for a major increase in schools' broadband access—a big say in shaping the direction of policies that affect programs such as the E-rate.

But only three commissioners can be members of the same political party, which gives Republicans a voice on the panel—albeit not a majority voice.

[UPDATE (July 9): Meanwhile, a pair of Democrats on Capitol Hill have weighed in on the E-rate proposal, warning that supporting an increase in Wi-Fi connections should not come at the expense of "cannibalizing" funding for basic Internet connectivity."

In a letter to Wheeler, U.S. Sens. John D. Rockefeller IV, of West Virginia, and Edward Markey, of Massachusetts, also urged the FCC chairman against adopting per-student or per-square foot funding models, saying those approaches are inflexibible and won't meet many applicants' individual needs. While saying they are pleased with some aspects of Wheeler's plan, they also voiced disappointment that it doesn't address "permanent funding changes" that would substantially boost the program's overall money pool.]

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