This notebook is not a computer. Illustration by Bloomberg View
This notebook is not a computer. Illustration by Bloomberg View

It's hard to say which fact is more unbelievable: that some public-school teachers and librarians still use beepers, or that U.S. taxpayers subsidize some of them. Either way, it's past time for this subsidy to be put toward more advanced and useful technology, such as Wi-Fi.

Last year, the Federal Communications Commission spent nearly $1 million on beepers through a program called E-Rate, which Congress created in 1996 to help schools afford telecommunications technology. The program’s funding comes from fees leveled on telecommunications companies, which they pass onto their customers. And while a million bucks is but a tiny fraction of E-Rate’s $2.4 billion budget, it’s emblematic of a program that was created in a dial-up age and has not kept pace with the digital times.

That could change today if the FCC votes to approve a proposal that would phase out funding for “legacy” communication technologies and services (not just beepers, but also landlines) that consume 50 percent of E-Rate’s budget. The resulting savings, along with savings from management efficiencies, would be redirected to subsidize high-speed Wi-Fi service, which is becoming increasingly important to classroom learning.

The age of the computer lab is quickly passing, as laptops and tablets become more common in classrooms -- but only classrooms that have Wi-Fi service. In 1996, just 14 percent of U.S. schools had Internet service, and most that did had dial-up connections. Today, nearly all schools have it, but less than 30 percent have high-speed service. That means most schools are unable to capitalize on the Web's potential.

Last summer, President Barack Obama set a goal of bringing high-speed Internet service to 99 percent of schools in four years. The proposal to reform E-Rate put forward by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, which would allocate $2 billion over two years to help 15,000 schools and 20 million students connect with Wi-Fi, would be a significant step toward reaching it.

Critics of the proposal -- including teachers' unions as well as two Democratic members of Congress who helped create E-Rate, Senators Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia and Ed Markey of Massachusetts -- fear that spending on Wi-Fi will “cannibalize” support for more traditional connectivity efforts in poorer areas.

It's true that Wi-Fi only helps connectivity within a school that already has a high-speed connection. But the proposal also contains reforms that should allow schools to achieve those connections at lower prices, and it will broaden the pool of schools that could apply for funding -- while still prioritizing those in low-income areas.

To ensure that Wi-Fi subsidies do not displace existing Internet subsidies, the senators want the FCC to raise the $2.4 billion cap it has placed on E-Rate spending. Today, the demand for E-Rate funds is twice what the agency can allocate to schools under the cap, which was set at $2 billion in 1996 and not indexed to inflation until 2010. (Had it kept pace from the beginning, funding would be more than $3 billion today.) Republicans, on the other hand, are wary of increasing the cap, at least without offsetting cuts elsewhere. One of the two Republican FCC commissioners this week criticized the Wheeler proposal for not specifying how the program would be paid for beyond its second year.

This debate over whether to raise the cap, and over exactly how spending for other E-Rate programs should be prioritized to make it affordable over five years, should not delay a vote on these long-overdue reforms. Last year, the FCC didn't spend a nickel for Wi-Fi service in schools. If the commission truly wants schools to move from beepers to broadband, it has to change that.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View's editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.