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Under New Leadership, FCC Quashes Report on E-rate Program's Success

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UPDATED

The Federal Communications Commission on Friday rescinded its own report documenting the success of the E-rate program, a multi-billion dollar FCC-led initiative that has helped tens of thousands of schools and libraries obtain high-speed internet access.

The report will have "no legal or other effect or meaning going forward," according to the commission's order.

The move prompted sharp criticism from education and open-government groups—and a warning from Florida Sen. Bill Nelson.

"While new FCC leadership may have new policy directions, the public record should not be permanently altered," the American Library Association said in a statement.

"We urge the reversal of the retraction decisions and an agreement that the FCC will not order the removal of any other documents from the public record."

The report was released on January 18, just two days before former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, a Democrat who oversaw major changes to the E-rate program during his tenure, stepped down. 

It was retracted on February 3, less than two weeks after President Donald Trump appointed Ajit Pai, a Republican commissioner who voted against the Wheeler-led E-rate reforms in 2014, as FCC chair.

The order officially came from the acting chiefs of the commission's Wireline Competition Bureau and Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, as well as the FCC's managing director.

An FCC spokesman said the report "does not reflect the official views of the agency." A copy remains available on the agency's website.

Titled "E-Rate Modernization: Progress and the Road Ahead," the document describes the impact of the FCC's 2014 effort to overhaul the E-rate program, which helps subsidize the cost of telecommunications services for public schools and libraries. In addition to raising the program's annual spending cap from $2.4 to $3.9 billion, Wheeler and the commission's Democratic majority approved regulations prioritizing broadband and Wi-Fi, increasing competition in the school-broadband market, and making a wide range of data related to the program publicly available.

Among the report's findings: Between 2013 and 2016, the percentage of school districts meeting minimum federal connectivity targets rose from 30 percent in to 77 percent. During the same span, the cost schools paid for bandwidth fell from $22 to $7 per megabit, per second.

The report also notes that the E-rate program, which is funded via fees on consumers' phone bills, has paid out less than allowed by law in each of the past two years.

The FCC spokesman did not dispute the report's findings, saying its publication "failed to follow proper proper procedures, and therefore we can't comment one way or the other on whether the findings and conclusions are accurate."

The findings echo those of nonprofit broadband-advocacy group EducationSuperHighway, which released its own analysis of E-rate application data last month.

Evan Marwell, the group's CEO, said he was "perplexed" as to why the FCC would withdraw a report showing the "tremendous success" of its own program.

"I'd think this report is exactly the kind of accountability Chairman Pai would like to see," Marwell said.

On Wednesday, Nelson, a Democrat and the ranking member of the U.S. Senate's Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, sent a sharply worded rebuke to the new chairman.

The E-rate is "without question the single most important educational technology program in the country," Nelson's letter reads.

"Our nation's students, teachers, and librarians—and this senator—will hold you accountable for any changes that roll back this highly successful and cherished program that has helped bring internet connectivity and broadband to schools and libraries throughout the nation."

Pai has long supported the E-rate program and believes it a "program worth fighting for," according to the FCC spokesman.

In voting against E-rate modernization in 2014, however, Pai cast the changes to the program as financially irresponsible. He argued that Wheeler and his supporters were dismissive of the program's impact on consumers and had not done enough to check waste, fraud, and abuse.

In 2015, Education Week and the PBS NewsHour took an extensive look at the impact of E-rate modernization on rural schools.

Pai has outlined his own plans to improve broadband access for rural schools and communities. As chairman, Pai also began last week unwinding recent changes to another FCC universal-service program known as the Lifeline.

It's common for a federal agency to switch policy directions after a change in leadership, especially following a presidential election, said Douglas A. Levin, a consultant with EdTech Strategies and the former head of the State Educational Technology Directors Association.

But even during a switch in administration, rescinding a public report is an unusual decision that "looks awful," Levin said.

"To expunge the record is clearly a political move," he said. "It's particularly curious because Pai himself seems to value data in decisionmaking."

The move could signal a coming effort to reduce overall FCC spending on universal-service programs, Levin said. 

It also lends credence to the growing fear that the Trump administration is engaged in a pattern of undermining access to information and the credibility of scientific evidence, said Alexander Howard, the deputy director of the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for open data and government transparency.

Howard cited the administration's questioning of widely accepted unemployment figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the removal of thousands of documents detailing animal welfare abuses from the U.S. Department of Agriculture website as similarly troubling examples.

The FCC's decision to rescind its E-rate report and walk away from its findings is more reason for concern, he said.

"If there's a body of scientific evidence collected by an agency about how to accomplish its mission, that's something we should want to be preserved in the public record," Howard said.

"The basic issue we are starting to run into is whether science itself is becoming politicized."

This post has been updated with reaction from Florida Sen. Bill Nelson.

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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