The Federal E-Rate program will be receiving an additional $1.5 billion in funding to further aid disadvantaged schools, offering access to technologies and providing high-speed internet.
The increase was approved in a partisan vote by the Federal Communications Commission. While both Democrats and Republicans agreed that there is a great need for broadband access expansion, they could not come to an agreement concerning the budget for the program, which is primarily funded through consumer fees on monthly phone bills.
The three Democratic commissioners for the agency felt it necessary to raise the budget from $2.4 billion to $3.9 billion in order to allow students, particularly those in rural areas, access to the high-speed Internet necessary to learn in modern classrooms.
According to the FCC, 63% of public schools, equal to over 40 million students, do not have access to high-speed Internet connections.
“Broadband is the greatest equalizer of our time, but this only holds true if everybody has access,” said Commissioner Mignon Clyburn.
FCC Chairman Thomas E. Wheeler, who is in favor of the increase, said it would equate to 16 cents a month for each landline and wireless phone number.
“The greatest moral responsibility that any generation has is the preparation of the next generation,” he said. “Less than a cost of a soda at McDonald’s over the course of a year is a small price to pay for that great responsibility we all have.”
However, the agency’s two Republicans argue that the move would be a tax hike for American citizens who fund the program through Universal Service Fund fees.
In addition, they said the program is wasteful and is need of reform in order to find the additional money for schools and libraries.
Teachers and administrators from rural schools had met with the commissioners prior to the vote, in an effort to remind them of the importance of having access to high-speed Internet for the future success of their students.
According to FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, funding for the program was capped 16 years ago. As a result, inflation squashed its purchasing power.
“At a time when digital skills are an essential part of preparing students for the modern economy, one of our most effective programs is frozen in the age of dial-up,” she said.
Senator John D Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who had written a letter last summer with Senator Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) asking the commission to increase funding, praised the recent decision.
“Today’s action will provide generations of students the opportunity to compete in an increasingly interconnected and data-driven world — and ultimately lead them to brighter futures,” Rockefeller said.
Last July the FCC voted to modernize the program. The update would include increasing funding for school Wi-Fi networks in order to allow students to have Internet access at their desks.
The Republicans on the commission had voted against the improvement, in favor of streamlining paperwork and an expansion of access to rural schools. They argued that the modernization would raise the cost that consumers pay into the program.
The fee for consumers will rise from 99 cents to $1.15 per month after this week’s vote for each landline and cell phone connection. The average household has three connections.