FCC seeks higher phone fees to fund broadband Internet in schools

The Federal Communications Commission is calling for higher fees on phone users to help raise an additional $1.5 billion to provide Internet connections for schools and libraries.

The proposal calls for raising the spending cap for the FCC’s E-rate program, meant to increase high-speed broadband and Wi-Fi access for education, especially in low-income communities, to $3.9 billion per year.

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"The fact that the preponderance of those without connectivity are low-income rural and urban schools is particularly unacceptable, so today I am announcing that we are doing something about it," FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler told reporters on a conference call.

The E-rate program and the broader Universal Service program are funded through fees on phone customers. Customers currently pay 99 cents a month per phone line to the Universal Service Fund. That total would increase by 16 percent if the proposal were adopted. 

Officials said the cap would likely not be reached immediately. The FCC will take up the proposal at its December meeting.

Wheeler and other supporters downplayed the increase to customers, saying it would amount to $2 a year per phone line. 

“The fact that this funding is directed towards the education of every child in America has protected it from the kind of criticism that other programs [receive]," said Sen. Edward MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyOvernight Regulation: FTC launches probe into Equifax | Dems propose tougher data security rules | NYC aims to slash greenhouse gas emissions | EPA to reconsider Obama coal ash rule Overnight Cybersecurity: Kaspersky to testify before House | US sanctions Iranians over cyberattacks | Equifax reveals flaw that led to hack Dems propose data security bill after Equifax hack MORE (D-Mass.), an early proponent of the program. 

Both Republicans on the commission quickly opposed the increase and called for "fiscally responsible" reforms. The fee increase is part of a broader plan to update the E-rate program. The FCC, for example, voted in July on a plan to expand Wi-Fi in schools and libraries. 

Republican FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai said the budgeting for the proposal did not add up at the time. He accused the commission of delaying the tax increase announcement until after the election. 

"Now, less than two weeks after the election, those chickens are coming home to roost," he said in a statement. 

Only three of the five commissioners need to approve the plan. 

The FCC and other advocates say the increase is needed, partly because the E-Rate cap was not increased to keep up with inflation for more than a decade after it was passed in 1996.

The funds would be essential to modernize schools, advocates say. 

The government has set a short-term goal for Internet speeds in schools to hit 1,000 megabits per second for every 1,000 students. It has a long-term goal to increase that to 1 gigabit. 

The FCC cited statistics that found 68 percent of school districts do not meet the targets, and 41 percent of rural schools do not even meet current connectivity goals. 

Another 45 percent of schools lack Wi-Fi goals, which would be set up to handle each student on a device.