Plan in works to speed up schools’ Internet service
WASHINGTON — The federal government wants to add $1.5 billion every year to a crucial pool of money that educators rely on to purchase and provide high-speed Internet — a potentially huge shot in the arm for the program.
Landline and mobile phone users would pay for the increase though a fee included in their monthly bills. The Federal Communications Commission, which will vote on the proposal next month, expects that Americans would pay an extra $2 or so per year for their phone service.
That’s about the cost of a cup of coffee, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said Monday. In exchange, thousands of schools and libraries would be able to connect users to the Web at the same speeds people enjoy at home.
The FCC subsidizes Internet service for thousands of schools and libraries under a program known as E-Rate, which began in 1997 to wire institutions for telephone service but has since become important in reducing the cost of educational broadband. While the vast majority of schools and libraries are now connected to the Web, too few offer the fastest connection speeds, Wheeler told reporters at a news conference announcing the proposal.
“Basic connectivity is now inadequate connectivity,” he said. “The digital age demands that we bring America’s schools and libraries into the 21st century so that all students have the tools they need to compete in a global economy.”
E-Rate’s annual budget is capped at about $2.4 billion a year. In July, the FCC took steps to help make the fund more cost-efficient, but some Democratic commissioners, such as Jessica Rosenworcel, have called for more aggressive action, including raising the budget cap.
“There is nothing radical about” indexing E-Rate to inflation, Rosenworcel said at July’s FCC meeting. Not doing so for the program’s first 13 years, she added, cut its purchasing power and left a gap amounting to “roughly $1 billion in missing support.”
Rosenworcel has emerged as a key vote on the commission. With Republicans largely unwilling to side with Wheeler on ideological grounds — Commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly have criticized the E-Rate proposal as a spending increase — the chairman has turned to his Democratic colleagues to secure enough votes to approve new rules.