The Federal Communications Commissions voted on Friday to set aside $2 billion in funds to build Wi-Fi networks in schools and public libraries – a move FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said would give the country’s 18-year-old E-Rate program a sorely needed upgrade.
E-Rate has helped bring broadband internet access to classrooms and library stacks across the country. But because of the way the rules are written it proved difficult for applicants to build Wi-Fi networks, even as the tools of online education increasingly become wireless. The FCC’s updated rules, however will earmark $1 billion in funds for Wi-Fi networking in 2015 and another $1 billion in 2016.
Though school Wi-Fi may seem like a innocuous topic, the issue proved surprisingly controversial and the vote was split down party lines. Republican lawmakers and Commissioner Ajit Pai said the new rules would favor big urban schools over rural ones. Meanwhile, teachers unions and education groups think the FCC hasn’t gone far enough. They pointed out that the overall funding levels and the structure for E-Rate have remained unchanged since nearly its inception, despite the growing importance of internet access to education.