WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. communications regulators are expected to vote Dec. 11 on whether to boost funding for the largest U.S. educational technology subsidy program, E-Rate, by 62 percent to help connect more schools and libraries to high-speed Internet.
Education labor unions and groups have long urged the Federal Communications Commission to lift the years-old cap on the program’s budget. On Monday, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler proposed raising E-Rate’s funding by $1.5 billion to $3.9 billion.
The subsidy is funded through fees Americans pay on their telephone bills. The proposed budget increase would mean an increase of 16 cents a month, or $1.92 a year, per telephone line, Wheeler said.
“Today’s announcement will go a long way to help level the digital playing field for our country’s students and ensuring equity,” said National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García.
E-Rate, created in 1996, has helped connect many classrooms and public libraries to the Internet, but some, especially in rural and low-income urban areas, remain without access to high-speed connections.
“Almost two-thirds of American schools cannot appropriately connect their students to the 21st century,” Wheeler told reporters. “Basic connectivity is now inadequate connectivity.”
President Barack Obama last year urged the FCC to expand E-Rate so that 99 percent of schools would have access to high-speed broadband and wireless Internet within five years.
The FCC in July voted 3-2 along party lines to phase out program spending on older technologies such as pagers, shift focus to high-speed Internet, and commit $2 billion in the next two years to improve Wi-Fi connections in schools, but without raising the program’s budget.
Republicans at the FCC, who oppose higher phone fees and say E-Rate needs more reforms, at the time predicted the budget question would return after the Nov. 4 elections, where Democrats lost control of the Senate majority.
Wheeler said the FCC took the additional time to analyze the potential increase to E-Rate’s budget cap. Much of the increase will make up for a lack of inflation adjustments over the years, he said.
“If coffee drinkers assume there will be Wi-Fi access at Starbucks, students should assume the same when they walk into a school,” said Senator Ed Markey, the Massachusetts Democrat who helped create E-Rate.
Reporting by Alina Selyukh; Editing by Bernadette Baum