FCC chairman Tom Wheeler said Monday he plans to form a Universal Service Fund "strike force" to insure "there is adherence to the rules and the people’s money is wisely spent."
In a speech to the Council of Chief State School Officers, Wheeler said he would be announcing details of the new task force "soon." The Universal Service Fund is paid into by telecom companies—a fee passed on to their subscribers—to provide advanced communications services to hard-to-reach areas where there is otherwise not a business case to provide it.
Wheeler said he would not hesitate to raise the contribution rate if that is what it takes to get high-speed broadband to schools and libraries, but said that "simply sending more money to the E-Rate program to keep doing business as it has been for the last 18 years is not a sustainable strategy."
Wheeler, who is a former member of the board that administers USF, said that he and his FCC colleagues "can't just pour money into the program as it presently stands."
He said that would mean some hard choices about phasing out legacy voice services—in favor of things like Wi-Fi.
"Our schools, libraries and E-Rate programs need to evolve from Alexander Graham Bell’s technology to Internet Protocol technology," he said.
As an example, he pointed to a story about elementary school students who were 45 minutes into an online math test when the system crashed due to inadequate bandwidth. "Most students lost all their work and had to retake the test," he said.
Wheeler outlined the FCC's planned revamp of the fund and E-Rate program, which subsidizes advanced telecom to anchor institutions (schools, libraries, community centers). Those will include growing bandwidth—to 100 Mbps and ultimately 1 gig—regularizing rates, and unburdening the process of getting the money.
Wheeler praised fellow Democratic commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who has pushed an E-Rate 2.0 model that emphasizes redirecting the fund's focus from deployment to deployment of high-speed bandwidth sufficient to meet students' needs.
"For more than a decade, Commissioner Rosenworcel has worked to make sure E-Rate works for America's students," he said. "The cause of promoting digital learning is fortunate to have her as a champion, and I consider myself lucky to have her as a colleague."