The Federal Communications Commission approved three new regulations Friday at its July open meeting, the most notable being a major reform of its E-rate program.
In a 3-2 vote, the FCC approved a $5 billion over five years funding package that aims to allow schools and libraries to significantly upgrade their Wi-Fi networks.
“Because of what we do today, 10 million kids will be connected next year who otherwise wouldn’t,” FCC Commissioner Tom Wheeler said. “That’s a good day’s work. That’s something to be proud of.”
Commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly voted against the proposal, with Pai calling the new measure another example of a “Washington-knows-best” system.
“The FCC has no business micromanaging the priorities of local schools and libraries,” Pai said while talking of how the proposal solely concentrates on Wi-Fi. “Local schools and libraries might be in a better position to set their own priorities.”
The subsidies will come from funding already available to the FCC, partly due to the commission moving subsidies away from supporting “non-broadband” technology like dial-up modems or pagers.
“No company would stick to an IT plan that was developed in 1998,” Wheeler said. “The needs of students and library users have changed, and so E-Rate has changed.”
The National Education Association applauded Friday’s decision, with NEA president Dennis Van Roekel calling the vote “a win for students.”
“NEA welcomes today’s decision to implement the proposed ‘modernized’ reforms as a two-year Wi-Fi test instead of hastily rushing into permanent changes to the E-Rate Program without the necessary continued funding,” Van Roekel said in a statement. “But if we are serious about ensuring equity in our schools, all the demand for ongoing Internet connectivity must be met — especially in high-needs schools. Shifting our goals to establish Wi-Fi in targeted school districts, without increasing the cap, could undermine the historical importance and significance of the E-Rate Program.”
The commission also approved two other measures aimed at bringing broadband service to rural areas and closed-captioning to online video clips.
In a unanimous vote, the FCC approved a $100 million budget for trial period programs aimed at bringing broadband connection to rural America.
Under the budget, $75 million will be allocated for programs where 25mb/5mb broadband speeds are brought to “high-cost” areas, $15 million will be allocated for programs with speeds of 10mb/1mb and another $10 million to “extremely high cost” areas with 10mb/1mb broadband speeds.
FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said the initiative is “in many ways uncharted territory” but also good governance.
“Universal service is a cherished principle, but its also a challenge,” Clyburn said. “When the private sector falls short, we act.”
The commission also unanimously approved a set of requirements for the closed captioning of online videos that have already aired on television. The rules do not apply to online content — YouTube videos or shows on Netflix — that has never aired on TV.
The regulation sets three dates for benchmarks as to when broadcast outlets must have captions on online videos. All single-clip videos that previously aired on television must have closed captioning on their online version by Jan. 1, 2016. Montages — multiple clips cut into one long video — must have captioning by Jan. 1, 2017. Time-sensitive clips — programming that aired live or near-live on TV — must have captioning by July 1, 2017.
“For far too long, individuals with special needs have been sitting at the back of the technological train,” Wheeler said Friday. “It’s time to challenge technology and those who use technology to solve problems upfront.”