A divided Federal Communications Commission is scheduled to vote tomorrow, July 11, on an E-rate Reform Order proposed by Chairman Tom Wheeler. The proposed order, which is focused primarily on enabling schools and libraries to use E-rate funding for Wi-Fi services, has become the subject of much controversy and, this week, of bitter division between the Democratic and Republican members of the Commission. This Tuesday, July 8, Commissioner Ajit Pai issued a news release decrying a “breakdown” in negotiations with Chairman Wheeler over the proposal, and charging that “the proposal will blow a $2.7 billion hole in E-Rate’s budget—one that the FCC has promised outside parties it’ll fill with a post-election increase in Americans’ phone bills.” Commissioner Pai added: “I was willing to meet the Chairman’s Office more than halfway, but today, they rejected almost every suggestion that I made. Unfortunately, the Chairman’s Office has no interest in seriously negotiating with the Republican Commissioners and is determined to pass this item on a party-line vote.
At this writing it is still somewhat uncertain that such a 3-2 party-line approval will occur. Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel reportedly is seeking changes to make the order more expansive and increase E-rate program funding overall, in the wake of a letter issued on Tuesday by leading E-rate advocates Senators Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) and Ed Markey (D-MA) that criticized Chairman Wheeler’s proposals as not going far enough to expand the program and to implement President Obama’s “ConnectEd” initiative to bring high-speed broadband to schools and libraries nationwide.
This week’s developments come on the heels of an “FAQ” blog post on the FCC website on June 30, authored by Gigi Sohn, Special Counsel to Chairman Wheeler, and Patrick Halley, Associate Chief of the FCC’s Wireline Competition Bureau. That blog post drew criticism for the vagueness of its claim that Chairman Wheeler’s proposals would be funded beyond the second year without the need to increase the E-rate program’s budget, and for saying little about E-rate reform beyond its Wi-Fi elements. It appears that Commissioner Pai’s allusion to a secret “promised . . . post-election increase in Americans’ phone bills” refers to an alleged commitment to expand E-rate funding levels at a later date.