FCC proposes $1B per year for Wi-Fi in schools

U.S. schools could get a cool billion to set up Wi-Fi networks to connect more than 10 million more students by the 2015-2016 school year under a new FCC proposal.

Three out of five schools don’t have the Wi-Fi they need, yet no money was available for Wi-Fi last year under E-Rate, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission’s Internet funding program for schools and libraries, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said Friday in a proposal circulated to the agency’s other commissioners.

Wheeler’s plan would allocate US$1 billion in E-Rate funds for Wi-Fi next year and another $1 billion in 2016, with the goal of getting Wi-Fi to more than 10 million additional students in each of those years. It also calls for predictable funding in future years. If the agency takes action this summer, the Wi-Fi upgrades could be in place for the 2015-2016 school year, according to the proposal.

The initial funding would come from $2 billion that the FCC has determined can be freed from reserve accounts and other sources, the proposal said.

E-Rate was established in 1996 and is too tied to the technologies of that era, according to Wheeler. His plan calls for a transition in funding from technologies such as dial-up and pagers to broadband and Wi-Fi in order to serve students on tablets and other personal devices. In past years, the program has only been able to support Wi-Fi in 5 percent of schools and 1 percent of libraries, Wheeler said. E-Rate provides a total of $2.4 billion per year in funding.

At the same time, Wheeler called for reforms to tighten control over a program that has been plagued by fraud and corruption. His plan calls for zero tolerance for fraud or abuse, with site inspections and tighter document-retention rules. It would also move the program toward electronic filing of all documents. The modernization plan is the first such proposal in the history of the program, according to Wheeler.

In February, a survey sponsored by technology-in-education group showed 83 percent of U.S. voters would support efforts to bring faster broadband to schools and 69 percent would back the idea even if it required a tax of $4 per year on their mobile bills.

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