FCC to boost fund for broadband in schools

The Federal Communications Commission plans to double a fund dedicated to bringing broadband Internet connections to schools and libraries, bolstering a White House push to wire all U.S. schools with faster speeds.

The plan to be announced Wednesday by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is to increase to $2 billion from $1 billion the portion of the E-Rate program for broadband grants. The FCC said the two-year increase in broadband grants will not come from an increase in rates charged to wireless and phone customers. Consumers’ monthly bills include a line-item charge for the federal Universal Service Fund, which includes the $2.4 billion annual E-Rate program.

Instead, the FCC will double broadband grants this year and next year with unused E-Rate funds from past years and by shifting away money dedicated to what it views as outdated telephone services such as dial-up Internet.

It is the latest effort by the FCC to lessen its oversight and support of an aging telephone system as consumers turn to wireless devices and broadband services as their main methods of communications.

Consumer groups have cautioned the FCC about turning its attention away from phone customers — many of them lower-income and elderly who continue to rely on basic phone service. Many consumers complain of being pressured into buying wireless and Internet-based phone plans.

The E-Rate fund has come under scrutiny for mismanagement and questionable benefits. For the past several years, an average of $500 million to $1 billion a year has gone unused.

An FCC official said the agency has been reviewing the program to weed out inefficiencies and will focus more of its grants on bringing faster broadband speeds.

“In the Internet age, every student in America should have access to state-of-the-art educational tools, which are increasingly interactive, individualized and bandwidth-intensive,” Wheeler said in a recent blog post.

Since the E-Rate program was established in 1996, nearly every school in the United States has been connected to basic Internet service. The FCC’s E-Rate efforts will bring speeds of 100 megabits a second to schools.

During his State of the Union address last week, President Obama reiterated his goal of bringing much faster broadband speeds to 99 percent of all U.S. schools in five years.

On Tuesday, the White House is to unveil about $500 million in private commitments by companies including Sprint, Verizon, Apple and Microsoft for broadband connections in schools.

Follow The Post’s new tech blog, The Switch, where technology and policy connect.

Cecilia Kang is a national technology reporter, writing about tech and Internet policies at the Federal Communications Commission and Federal Trade Commission and how regulations affect businesses and consumers.
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