The takeaway from the Democrat-dominated Senate Commerce
Committee hearing on the FCC's E-rate program is that it would be more costly
in the long run not to invest in an expanded and updated program.
E-rate is the congressional mandate to subsidize
telecommunications services to schools and libraries and the hearing featured
two of the program's chief "mandaters," chairman Jay Rockefeller (D- W. Va.)
and newly elected Senator and Commerce Committee member Ed Markey (D-Mass.).
The FCC is planning to launch a rulemaking on
reforming the E-rate program on Friday, only weeks after a presidential
directive to leverage the program to help achieve high-speed broadband to 99%
of schools and libraries.
Acting chairwoman Mignon Clyburn scheduled that launch, but
commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, as a former top aide to Rockefeller, has been
a long-time champion of an E-rate 2.0 approach to updating the regime and got
shout-outs during the senator for that support, including for bandwidth
Republican Sens. John Thune (S.D.) and Ron Johnson (Wis.)
introduced various notes of caution about limiting the size of the fund and not
emphasizing speed over reaching unserved schools.
Thune said he was concerned that the FCC not prioritize
"debatable" speed goals over basic service to all schools. Thune
praise FCC commissioner Ajit Pai's proposal for a student-focused reform of
E-rate that was tied to flexibility and local decision-making, and the
discipline to try and do that within the current funding levels.
But all the witnesses -- librarians, school officials, a
Cisco exec, the cochair of Leading Education by Advancing Digital (LEAD)
Commission, an FCC and DOE effort to improve education -- and the Dems on the
panel were in agreement that the emphasis should be on investing what is
necessary to insure students have access to broadband at speeds that
anticipated future needs, or present ones like HD streaming.
Sen. Markey, attending his first hearing in the new post,
said there was a need for greater speed, better Wi-Fi and a more streamlined
application process -- that was another popular issue during the hearing.
He said the program was a good proxy for the success of the
nation and its global competitiveness. Rockefeller said he believed the E-rate
program had spurred a broadband revolution, "insufficient," he added,
"but a revolution nonetheless.
As for the investment and affordability of the program,
which so far has handed out more than $30 billion, Rockefeller suggested that
the country could not afford to let kids fall further behind their global peers
in math and science and could not afford to deny teachers the tools to educate
the next generation.
Commissioner Rosenworcel released following
statement on the hearing: "I am pleased that today the Senate Committee on
Commerce, Science, and Transportation is examining ways to strengthen E-Rate
and expand access to the latest digital technology and learning tools in our
schools and libraries. Through the vision and leadership of Senator
Rockefeller and Senator Markey, E-Rate was first launched seventeen years
ago. It has since done great things to connect our schools and
libraries. But we are quickly moving from a world where what matters is
connectivity to what matters is capacity. So it is time to upgrade the
E-Rate program for the 21st Century. It is time for E-Rate 2.0. We need
to protect what we have done, build on it, and put it on a course to provide
higher speeds and greater opportunities in the days ahead."