Booker-Rubio Bill, FCC Want to Close the 'WiFi Gap'

Providing Internet access to more Americans is the focus of a WiFi Innovation Act and a proposed update to the E-Rate program. 

WiFi Gap

Washington is talking about WiFi.

On June 20, U.S. Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., proposed legislation that would require the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to expand the use of unlicensed spectrum so that more Americans might use it to get online. The same day, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler proposed an update to the 18-year-old E-Rate program that brings Internet connectivity to schools and libraries.

The Booker-Rubio WiFi Innovation Act calls on the FCC to assess the feasibility of opening the 5850-5925 spectrum band and establishes a study to examine what's preventing the deployment of more wireless networks in low-income neighborhoods. The study would also evaluate incentives and policies that could increase the availability of unlicensed spectrum in underserved areas.

"Not only does access to wireless broadband open the door for innovation and transformative new technologies, it helps bridge the digital divide that leaves too many low-income communities removed from the evolving technology landscape and the growing economic opportunities," Booker said in a statement.

The act also acknowledges, the senators said in a statement, the need to "balance the importance of developing Intelligent Transportation and incumbent licensees in the 5 GHz band."

The phrase nods to the fact that the spectrum band has been pegged for use on highways and beyond for the connected car market's plans of a connected ecosystem in which vehicles can communicate with transportation infrastructure and other vehicles in order to create new efficiencies and improve driver safety.

While several groups, such as the Washington, D.C.-based consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge, applauded the act, the Intelligent Transportation Society of America (ITSA) expressed concern.

"ITS America supports efforts to identify spectrum that may be utilized to expand WiFi applications. But with over 30,000 deaths on our nation's roads every year, we also believe it is critical that efforts to open up additional spectrum do not come at the expense of revolutionary life-saving technologies," it said in a post on its site.

It added that hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on connected-car technologies based on the availability of the 5.9GHz band. On the cusp of such a venture, it added, "we owe it to the American taxpayers to protect their investment and see this life-saving innovation through to implementation."

Public Knowledge Senior Vice President Harold Feld said in a statement that the Booker-Rubio legislation would "resolve an ugly traffic jam between the FCC and the Department of Transportation (DoT) that is needlessly delaying the next generation of WiFi technology."

Feld added that the legislation offers a road map forward that respects both the need to open spectrum for the Internet of things (IoT) and for "safer 'smart cars.'"

Modernizing E-Rate

Like the Booker-Rubio legislation, FCC Chairman Wheeler's draft order to update E-Rate proposes to close "the WiFi gap."

"Whereas once it was revolutionary to connect a computer lab down the hall to the Internet, harnessing the full value of digital learning today means enabling all students to go online from their desk or from any library workspace," Wheeler said in a statement, noting that much has changed since the inception of E-Rate.

His draft proposal seeks to commit a minimum of $1 billion to get WiFi access to 10 million students across the country in the 2015 school year, and another $1 billion in 2016 "with predictable support continuing in future years." It would also offer "equitable distribution of support," ensuring rural schools aren't left out of funding; begin a multiyear transition of all funding to broadband, gradually phasing down support for non-broadband services; and adopt clear goals for measuring success.

It also proposes setting a matching rate of 4:1, so that for every dollar the poorest schools spend, the program will spend $4 "to promote cost-effective decision making"; increasing transparency on how E-Rate dollars are spent and the prices charged for E-Rate; and leveraging programs that enable schools to buy equipment at cheaper rates.

"The simple fact of the matter is that the free market has failed to provide basic broadband connectivity to more than 15 million Americans," Wheeler said in a blog post. "While we have already taken steps to close the gap, there's more work to be done."

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