The Federal Communications Commission apparently does listen.

At least it listened to the National Education Association and other education-minded organizations that had protested the initial FCC E-Rate proposal that FCC chairman Tom Wheeler offered.

The NEA director of government Relations Mary Kusler told VentureBeat today that the $2 billion E-Rate plan that the agency approved is “a step forward.” The FFC approved it on a 3-2 vote.

“We are pleased with what was eventually approved,” Kusler said.

In mid-June, the agency released a plan for using E-Rate funds.

The E-Rate program has been around since 1997 and has provided billions in support for connecting schools and libraries to the Internet. The funding comes from the Universal Service Fund, fed by a fee on consumer phone bills. Last year, the federal government spent $8.2 billion from the fund, which also provides money for several other programs, including subsidies in rural areas for phone and Internet.

But the challenge these days is not simply connecting the schools and libraries with some form of Internet since at least rudimentary service is common. The challenge is connecting broadband Internet and enabling wireless.

According to Kusler, the concern of her organizations and others — including the American Federal of Teachers and the National PTA — was that the initial plan de-emphasized broadband connectivity “to the school door” and focused most of the approximately $2 billion available for creating wireless capability inside.

The program didn’t have enough money to do both at the same time, she said, but the schools needed to get broadband first. Most of the schools could provide internal wired access to broadband.

“Connectivity is the most important part,” she told us, because “there are still large portions of rural [and urban poor] communities that don’t have broadband” to the school. Kusler noted that the Obama administration has committed to having 99 percent broadband connectivity to all U.S. schools within five years.

The plan as approved today flips the initial focus, emphasizing funding for the broadband connectivity to the building and, Kusler said, “what’s left over will be used to test out Wi-Fi.” The funding for Wi-Fi will now come in part from other unused funds and other sources, but, in a kind of “safety valve,” external broadband connectivity has priority.

The FCC did not respond to our request for comments.

But while the FCC seems to have pleased the educational groups for now, there are still pending questions.

How is Wi-Fi inside all schools going to be achieved? How is full broadband connectivity going to be achieved, since even the $2 billion is not enough? The E-Rate funds are capped at a level set back in 1998.

As the broadcast regulators at the FCC might say, “Stay tuned.”


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