Should Americans be asked to pay a little more in phone bill fees to help fund better Internet connections in public schools? That's essentially what Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler proposed Monday.
If you have a landline or mobile phone, then you probably already pay a small fee every month towards what's called the Universal Service Fund. The USF is essentially a pool of money created in 1997 as a bulwark against market failures leading to poor Internet access in rural and low-income communities. While the USF is paid for by telecom companies like Verizon and AT&T, those companies often pass their contributions onto consumers in the form of fees on your monthly bill.
Wheeler's idea would hike the USF fees by about $1.90 a year for the average phone subscriber, the FCC estimates, with the money going to a $1.5 billion increase for a program designed specifically to subsidize faster Internet connections in more of the country's public schools.
The FCC has been reworking that program, called E-Rate, to shift its focus from funding old-school technologies to modern ones like high-speed wireless access, which many observers say is sorely lacking in many of the country's schools. Almost 70% of school districts say none of their schools meet the FCC's long-term connectivity targets, the agency said Monday, with 58% of districts pinning the problem on cost. That situation, some have warned, could make students less competitive later in life. Closing that so-called "broadband gap" has been a priority of the Obama administration, which in June of last year announced a program designed to get broadband access to 99% of American students by 2017 — and E-Rate is a big part of meeting that goal.
The agency is framing the fee hike as a way to ensure that more students have access to the kinds of high-tech learning solutions that could make them — and the nation — more competitive down the road. "While the impact on consumers will be small, the impact on children, teachers, local communities and American competitiveness will be significant," the FCC says in a fact sheet about the proposal. The agency has also promised to make E-Rate spending more transparent, so Americans get a better idea of where those phone bill fees are going.
Still, the FCC can't unilaterally raise the fees you wind up seeing on your phone bill. Wheeler's proposal will first have to clear a public comment period before being voted upon by himself and the agency's four commissioners. However, given how expanding Internet access in schools is a top Obama administration priority and the FCC's Democratic commissioners outnumber their Republican counterparts 3-2, it's a safe bet the agency will move forward with the plan, barring any public outrage over it.