MOORESVILLE, North Carolina (Reuters) - President Barack Obama directed his government on Thursday to begin a process to give 99 percent of American students high-speed internet connections within five years.
"In a country where we expect free Wifi with our coffee, why can't we expect that in our schools?" he told students at a middle school in Mooresville.
Obama ordered the Federal Communications Commission to start work on connecting more school classrooms and libraries with high-speed broadband in five years.
The goal is to help improve education for students and make them better prepared for jobs.
"At a moment when the rest of the world is trying to out-educate us, we've got to make sure that our young people, all you guys, have every tool you need," he said.
Obama chose the Mooresville school for his event to make a point: It has improved test scores and graduation rates through digital learning, an approach favored in countries like South Korea, which is phasing out printed textbooks by 2016.
Obama's plan does not need approval from Congress. Instead, the Federal Communications Commission would make changes to its E-Rate program, a $2.3 billion-per-year-subsidy that allows schools and libraries to get discounted rates for internet service.
Obama, who has been stymied in getting many of his priorities through a divided Congress, said the best news about this plan is "none of this requires an act of Congress."
Administration officials said the effort will require a one-time investment of several billion dollars, which could be generated within a few years by a fee on home phone bills of less than $5 per year per home.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan, briefing reporters on Air Force One, said it would not be clear if the telephone tax would have to go up or by how much until the FCC looks more closely at existing funding and the needs of the initiative.
An administration official said the average American school has a slower Internet connection than the typical American home, and many schools cannot stream an internet video in more than one classroom at the same time.
The administration wants schools to have access to high-speed broadband so students can use devices at their desks.
This approach would allow students to explore the ocean floor from their desks, collaborate in groups, learn at their own pace and "help them overcome what is actually a great challenge in the American classroom today, which is boredom," the official said.
The program also would create a huge market for devices and software, another official told reporters.
Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton in Washington; Editing by Xavier Briand and Cynthia Osterman