FCC Chair on E-Rate for Schools and Net Neutrality

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski (Credit: FCC)

by Larry Magid
October 22, 2010

As chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Julius Genachowski is playing a key role in what could turn out to be sweeping changes in the way the Internet reaches children in schools and libraries. He’s also the point man in a national debate on Net neutrality as some Internet service providers square off against activists who demand that the federal government ensure that companies not be able to prioritize network traffic.

Prior to his appointment as FCC chairman by President Obama in 2009, Genachowski spent more than a decade in the private sector as co-founder of LaunchBox, a managing director of Rock Creek Ventures, and as an executive at IAC/InterActiveCorp.

E-Rate to be “modernized”

I interviewed Genachowski two days before a scheduled FCC meeting where the Commission is expected to approve changes in the E-rate program. E-Rate, established by Congress in the Telecommunications Act of 1996, taps into the Universal Service Fund from fees paid by telecommunications subscribers to provide telecommunications and Internet access to schools and libraries.

Genachowski was at the Computer Museum in Mountain View, Calif., yesterday to speak at a forum sponsored by Common Sense Media on “Back to School: Learning and Growing in a Digital Age.” According to the FCC, 97 percent of American schools and nearly all public libraries have basic Internet access but 78 percent of E-Rate recipients told the agency that they need faster connections. “Many schools and teachers complained that the Internet access they had is too slow to take advantage of the opportunities of digital tools for the students,” Genachowski said. (Scroll down to listen to the podcast.)

Addressing the growing educational use of mobile technology, he said that “for the first time we’re going to begin a pilot program to have E-Rate cover mobile. There are huge opportunities here in e-textbooks and interactive learning materials.” He added that teachers increasing know that they want kids to have access to broadband wherever they are and to do not just digital classwork but digital homework.” The chairman also talked about wanting to make “a world of knowledge available to every kid, wherever they were born, whatever school district they live in, and whatever country they’re in.”

Net neutrality

I also asked Genachowski about Net neutrality, which has been a very hot topic for the FCC. We spoke exactly one year after he gave a speech (PDF) where he outlined strong support for treating all network traffic equally. In the ensuing months there have been delays in implementing new rules and complaints from advocacy groups such as Free PressMedia Access Project, and Public Knowledge arguing that Genachowski has so far failed to follow up on his promises.

In the interview, Genachowski said, “We’re making real progress and seeing more and more widespread recognition that we need to have these six enforceable principals (PDF) to preserve the free and open Internet.” When asked about the accusations that the agency hasn’t fulfilled his promises to guarantee neutrality, he responded: “There are still some difficult substantive issues to work out. We’re doing that now in consultation with the broadest degree of stakeholders and we need to make sure in view of some court decision that came out over the last year that we have find a sustainable legal foundation.”

You Can Listen to Entire Interview Here: mp3 file

“>Listen to Larry’s interview with Genachowski

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