FCC approves school WiFi plan

(UPDATED, 1:28 p.m., with comment from Tom Luna.)

In a vote that could have dramatic implications for schools in Idaho and across the nation, the Federal Communications Commission voted Friday to put $1 billion a year into WiFi systems.

The plan could provide 259,187 Idaho students with WiFi access, according to FCC estimates, and eventually install WiFi in 726 schools and 143 libraries statewide. The FCC will find the money by shifting spending away from programs to fund voice service, email and pager purchases.

But the FCC proposal sparked some controversy, Kate Tummarello of The Hill reported Friday. Republicans fear the plan would trigger an increase in phone bills; Democrats feared the plan would come at the expense of basic Internet connectivity in schools and libraries. Ultimately, the plan passed on a 3-2 vote.

In a news release, state superintendent Tom Luna praised the move.

“Whether you are in an urban school district or a geographically diverse state like Idaho, we know we will never truly meet the needs of all students until we close the digital divide and provide classroom teachers the 21st century tools they need to individualize instruction for every child,” he said.

Chris Minnich, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, hailed Friday’s move. “With today’s order, state education leaders now will have access to funding for internal WiFi connections that will support digital learning in the classroom and help create important educational opportunities for millions of U.S. students.”

Money for the WiFi initiative would come from the “e-rate” funding, a monthly fee attached to cell phone and landline bills. E-rate has paid for broadband initiatives — such as the Idaho Education Network, which has connected high schools across the state. But e-rate payments for this program have been on hold for 16 months, as an FCC contractor reviews the Idaho Education Network contract.

Friday’s FCC decision will have no effect on the Idaho Education Network funding situation.

For more on the WiFi proposal, here’s a link to my story from Thursday.