The head of the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is calling on US lawmakers to change the way internet connectivity is funded and deployed in schools.
Speaking at a legislative conference, Tom Wheeler – chairman of the watchdog – said the E-Rate program that supplies communications gear to schools and libraries in America should focus on replacing wired Ethernet in classrooms with Wi-Fi setups.
Wheeler, who oversees administration of the networks, described touring classrooms and finding walls lined with unused Ethernet ports as teachers and students rely on portable devices and Wi-Fi networks far more than machines hooked up to wired connections – even though wireless connectivity is chronically underfunded.
And even if the kids could connect to a network from their gadget or computer, the available bandwidth to the internet is woefully inadequate, judging by the chairman's anecdotal evidence.
To that end, says Wheeler, E-Rate should reduce spending on unpopular wired Ethernet, ramp up Wi-Fi coverage in classrooms, and then shift its focus to hooking schools and libraries up to high-speed broadband.
"This past year, for the first time ever, after supporting priority one services, no funding was available to support Wi-Fi," he said.
"So for the most recent funding year America’s largest program for connecting schools spent less than half of its $2.4 billion providing 100 megabit-per-second capacity, and nothing for Wi-Fi. Why do we spend over a billion dollars per year on things that don’t enhance the high-speed broadband connectivity our teachers and students need?
"Answering that question, however, begins to ruffle feathers because it means potentially reallocating E-Rate resources. Or looking at new ways to structure the manner in which funds are allocated."
Developed in 1997 through the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC), the E-Rate Schools and Libraries program funds the installation and maintenance of telecommunications systems in schools. The system offers state-funded schools and libraries discounts on services and support for their IT deployments.
Wheeler charges that the system is wasting hundreds of millions of dollars per year by funding outdated projects that are rarely used. Rather than fund services such as hosted email, toll-free telephone services and web hosting, Wheeler said that newer wireless broadband services need to take precedent.
"A 21st century E-Rate program needs to focus on 21st century needs," he said.
"I recognize that this means hard decisions – both in E-Rate administration and school administration. How we evolve from analog voice to digital voice services in schools is one of those tough challenges."
The FCC chairman has been no stranger to controversy. Since taking over the role from Julius Genachowski last fall, Wheeler has generated debate on issues including net neutrality and broadband spectrum expansion. ®