The Federal Communications Commission plan increases funding for a federal subsidy program, known as E-Rate, by $1.5 billion a year. The injection of new money will help urban libraries by giving eligible institutions much more money than expected to strengthen their WiFi networks. Now, they'll be able to apply for money at a rate of $5 for every square foot of space in their building, up from a rate of $1 per square foot, as the FCC had been discussing earlier this year.
The money will also go to schools with Internet connections that are too slow to handle modern communications. According to data collected by the FCC, 40 million students — representing two-thirds of all public schools — can't get adequate Internet speeds in the classroom.
Over five years, the rate hike will give $7.5 billion to educators, many of whom complain that they can't get enough money from the government to help pay for faster Internet service or newer networking hardware. Republicans are opposed to the increase, however, because it'll be funded by folks like you and me: Every phone user in the country is charged a monthly fee on their bills that goes into the pool of money that supports E-Rate. Under the FCC's rate hike, consumers will wind up paying an additional $2 a year or so.
Overall, annual spending on E-Rate will swell by 71 percent from its 2010 levels, when the FCC first started indexing the program budget to inflation.
On Thursday, Republican FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai called E-Rate a "bureaucratic yoke" and argued the burden for the spending increase would fall hardest on non-wealthy Americans.
"While those who can afford to live in Georgetown, Manhattan's Upper East Side or Malibu might scoff at these increased taxes," said Pai, "families in the rest of America are sick of being nickel and dimed by Washington politicians."
Democrats on the panel pushed back, arguing the move is a much-needed investment — and long delayed.
"I'm aghast at the hostility that is expressed to giving students tools they need to get a 21st century education," said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, "when we know as a fact that two-thirds of the schools in America have inadequate connectivity."
Jessica Rosenworcel, another commission Democrat, said 70 percent of teachers now assign homework that requires access to broadband, but as many as a third of U.S. households lack high-speed Internet entirely.
"Think about these numbers," said Rosenworcel. "Where they overlap is what I call the 'homework gap.'"
After the FCC approved the spending hike by a 3-2 vote, educators at the agency's December meeting hugged in celebration.
"We were really excited around what you're ready to do with E-Rate this morning," Dallas Dance, the school superintendent for Baltimore County, Md., told the FCC. "When we look at the fact that over 80 percent of our schools are more than 40 years or older, we have to make sure that our students can get online every single day without any issues."
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