At the third annual Digital Learning Day in Washington D.C. today, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler announced plans to push forward with the agency’s next steps in implementing the White House ConnectED initiative to increase high speed broadband connections to the nation’s schools, as well as the E-rate modernization efforts announced in the FCC’s recent Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. Of particular note in Chairman Wheeler’s announcement was that existing funds would be the source of $2 billion earmarked to connect 20 million students to broadband services, perhaps signaling that the FCC is unlikely to recommend an overall increase in the federal Universal Service Fund to pay for the new high speed connections. Rather, the agency initially is looking to shift priorities and uses of existing funding, including eliminating funding for “legacy” services such as “low-bandwidth” Internet access services. In fact, Chairman Wheeler stated that the FCC will issue a Public Notice seeking comment on the process of eliminating funding for such services. He also stated that the agency will work to clear out pending appeals and holds on applications by the end of March 2014. The FCC’s efforts will be complemented by $750 million in private sector funding commitments confirmed by the White House yesterday. These commitments include $100 million each from Apple, AT&T, Sprint and Verizon in broadband services, tablets and laptops. Microsoft has also pledged to offer deeply discounted prices for Windows operating systems.
E-rate reform efforts are receiving attention from industry leaders outside the communications industry as well. As Chairman Wheeler noted in his speech at Digital Learning Day, he received a letter last week from “50 of America’s leading corporate chiefs—from Meg Whitman to Michael Dell to Mark Zuckerberg—in which they described E-Rate as an essential tool for our nation’s competitiveness.”