The Federal Communications Commission could act as soon as Friday on proposed changes to an 18-year-old program that helps connect the nation’s classrooms and libraries to high-speed Internet.
The FCC plan to focus more resources on Wi-Fi access is drawing concern from some Arkansas educators and lawmakers, who fear it could leave rural and poor districts wanting.
"We do believe it needs to be modernized but not in a way that has a negative impact on a state like Arkansas," said Fort Smith Public Schools Superintendent Benny Gooden.
Gooden was on Capitol Hill on Wednesday to urge Arkansas lawmakers to weigh in on the FCC proposal that would spend much of its $2.4 billion E-Rate program on Wi-Fi access for schools and libraries. Gooden said that focus would put in jeopardy funding that Fort Smith relies on to offset its broadband connectivity costs.
Gooden said he is also concerned with proposed changes in the way funds are distributed that would favor larger schools and libraries rather than needy communities.
"Frankly, our district might make money on that (change) but it is wrong," he said.
Gooden participated in the School Superintendents Association’s legislative advocacy conference. He met Wednesday with Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., and Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers.
Pryor said Thursday that he agrees that the E-Rate program should be streamlined and strengthened in a way that makes sure that the needs of students in Arkansas, and elsewhere, are met.
"That’s why I’ve called on the FCC to find a balanced solution that adequately funds schools’ basic Internet connections and invests in technology in the classroom like Wi-Fi," he said.
The FCC meets Friday and is expected to approve spending $2 billion over the next two years to fund Wi-Fi in schools and libraries. That funding is on top of the agency’s $2.4 annual budget for the E-Rate program but leaves in question how the FCC plans to continue the Wi-Fi commitment through 2019.
Sen. John D. Rockefeller, D-W.Va., who has championed the E-Rate program since its inception 18 years ago, has also raised concerns about future funding. In a recent letter to the FCC he said it was "unfortunate" that the proposal did not offer permanent changes to put the E-Rate program on a solid financial foundation. He was also concerned that the emphasis on Wi-Fi could crowd out basic broadband hookups. "Efforts to make Wi-Fi technology ubiquitous in our schools and libraries cannot come at the expense of the already limited funding that keeps these institutions connected," he wrote.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has said that his modernization proposal would benefit children living in rural areas where a disproportionate number of schools do not have Wi-Fi access. He expects more than six million would gain access in 2015 alone.