White House calls broadband initiative a ‘no-brainer’

The White House on Wednesday called a  $4-6 billion proposal to expand high-speed Internet access to 99 percent of schools a “no-brainer,” but said the idea ultimately requires approval by the independent Federal Communications Commission.

Speaking in response to a question in Martha's Vineyard, where President Obama is vacationing, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the program is part of the agenda of expanding economic opportunity that has been the focus of presidential trips and speeches this summer.

“A quality education is a key component of that,” he said. “So with a relatively modest investment, we could connect 99 percent of schools all across the country to the Internet, and that would expand educational opportunities for students in a really important way.”

The proposal, which was the subject of a Washington Post story on Wednesday, is called ConnectEd and was first unveiled in June by Obama. The president and his aides regard the idea as potentially one of the most transformative proposals of his presidency, and they say they are relying on the FCC to implement it in part because Congress is unlikely to act on its own.

“We have seen a little dysfunction in Congress. You would think that connecting schools to the information superhighway would be a pretty non-controversial topic,” Earnest said. “Unfortunately, we haven't seen a lot of action in Congress, so the president has advocated an administrative, unilateral action to get this done.”

Still, the spokesman acknowledged that although the administration is pushing on its own to expand broadband, it does in the end rely on the FCC to carry out the initiative. The commission has the power to raise fees on cellphones and other telecom services to fund connectivity for schools and libraries, known as the E-Rate program.

“The FCC is an independent body, and they'll have to make their own determination about whether or not they want to update the E-Rate program,” Earnest said. He said doing so would probably impose a cost of $5 or less a year on cellphone owners.

The FCC, he said, needs "to make a decision about whether or not they want to update this program so that they can wire schools to the Internet. Again, the president thinks that's a no-brainer."

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who helped create the E-Rate program in the 1990s and today is the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, said in a statement Wednesday that the E-Rate program has been enormously beneficial and that he hopes the FCC moves forward on ConnectEd.

“E-Rate has successfully transformed the way we educate students and it has enabled schools and libraries across this country to participate in the information society,” Rockefeller said. "An expanded E-Rate program can make an even bigger impact and bring high-speed connectivity to all schools and libraries.”

Some Republicans and Republican-leaning FCC officials have warned that they would oppose any new policy that raises fees on consumers, saying there is too much inefficiency in the program today.

But Rockefeller, who held a hearing on the ConnectEd proposal, praised Obama for pursuing the idea and said he would work to see it through.

“I’m glad to have such a strong advocate in the president who understands that basic internet connectivity is no longer sufficient to meet our 21st Century educational needs,” Rockefeller said.

Zachary A. Goldfarb is a staff writer covering the White House, focusing on President Obama’s economic, financial and fiscal policy.
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Aaron Blake | August 14, 2013