FCC Head Seeking More Funds for School, Library Internet

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Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler began to disperse a proposal this week that would raise the regulatory fees on phone bills so that quality internet access may be provided to all US schools and libraries.

The increase would amount to 16 cents per month, or about $2 a year. Chloe Albanesius of PCMag writes that customers already pay several dollars each month to the Universal Service fund, the purpose of which is to provide Americans access to telecom services. Included in that fee is money for E-Rate, which is intended for schools ad libraries. E-Rate is almost 20 years old, therefore the FCC has been making attempts to modernize it. The object is to give institutions, especially those in low-income and rural areas, high-speed internet and Wi-Fi.

“E-Rate has helped to ensure that almost every school and library in the U.S. has the most basic level of connectivity, but in the 18 years since E-Rate was established, technology has evolved and basic connectivity is not inadequate,” Wheeler said. “The digital age demands that we bring America’s schools and libraries into the 21st century so that all students have the tools to compete in a global economy, a shot at their own success, and a role in the growing economy that drives America’s success.”

Wheeler has proposed that the E-Rate funding cap be increased from $2.4 billion to $3.9 billion per year. The first funding cap was $2.25 billion in 1997, which was not altered for inflation until 2010. Wheeler says the reason this is such an important move is because “digital learning is absolutely critical in preparing our children” for the coming years. But, Commissioner Ajit Pai is opposed and has called for “fiscally responsible reforms”.

“How will the FCC pay for this spending spree?” asked Commissioner Mike O’Rielly. “Initially, the FCC will raise telecommunications bills by at least 16 percent. And, ultimately, I predict the FCC will disastrously impose new fees on broadband service – a move that even some consumer groups have opposed.”

Both households and businesses pay into the program, but the amount an individual household pays will include fees on home and mobile service.

The overhaul of the E-Rate program passed on a slim 3-2 vote. The two Republican commissioners called for streamlining paperwork requirements and tightening controls on spending. The New York Times‘ Edward Wyatt writes that the Universal Service Plan has grown about 20% during the Obama administration.

The inequities of infrastructure affect rural schools in particular. Libraries and schools serve dozens to hundreds of students at a time, and sometimes are the only access to an Internet connection for many. Still, half of all public libraries have connection speeds of less than 10 megabits per second, when, says Wheeler, 25 megabits per second is needed in 21st century. The number of students using the connection means speeds need to be higher: 100 megabits per 1,000 students for now and 1 gigabit per 1,000 students for the longer term.

In an article for ComputerWorld, Grant Gross writes that 45% of US schools lack Wi-Fi capacity to deliver service to each student. Around 41% of rural schools do not have fiber broadband, and 31% of urban schools do not have a fiber Internet connection.  Wheeler’s plan will be debated during the FCC’s December 11 meeting.

“It’s time to give rural American schools an alternative beyond being held hostage by the actions or inactions of a local telecommunications provider,” Wheeler said. “It is time to give rural American schools alternatives so they can connect their students to the same educational opportunities as other American students.”