FCC Looks To Boost Broadband In Schools By Increasing Phone Fees

| by Will Hagle

As the debate regarding net neutrality and title II reclassification wages on, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is focusing the agency’s efforts on a less (but still somewhat) controversial matter: improving Internet connectivity in the nation’s public school system. According to a report by the New York Times, Wheeler is expected to announce a 62 percent increase in funds allocated to schools for Internet access. As The Verge reports, the move would raise the agency’s budget for school-related funding from $2.4 billion to $3.9 billion.

The funds will come from the FCC’s E-Rate program, the portion of the Universal Service Fund that supports the school system. On the FCC’s page explaining how the Universal Service Fund works, the agency explains that its mission is to expand access to communications tools and services to all Americans. In 2014, the most necessary and important communications tool is the Internet, and Americans need connectivity. “Today, the FCC recognizes high-speed Internet as the 21st century’s essential communications technology, and is working to make broadband as ubiquitous as voice, while continuing to support voice service,” the FCC website reads. 

In order to increase broadband connectivity in schools, however, the FCC will be imposing fees on subscribers to voice communication services. The new plan calls for an approximately 16 percent increase on consumer phone bills, which Wheeler estimates works out to about an extra $2-6 per household per year. Although it’s technically not classified as such, it’s almost a form of communications tax — forcing phone subscribers to pay the FCC so that the agency can fund new WiFi and broadband services in schools. It’s a subtle yet effective method of wealth redistribution. 

Although a fee increase is never a good sign for individual consumers, Wheeler’s reform of the Universal Service Fund is as important, albeit in a different way, for Internet equality in America. Education has been transformed by digital tools and services in recent years, but many schools lack the resources to buy or use that newer technology. According to Education Superhighway, 63 percent of K-12 schools have “insufficient Internet access.” Only 39 percent of schools have WiFi access throughout the building. 

Unsurprisingly, these statistics reflect the gap between the nation’s wealthiest and most impoverished schools. According to a Pew Research project, “70% of teachers working the highest income areas say their school does a ‘good job’ of providing teachers the resources and support they need to incorporate digital tools in the classroom, compared with 50% of teachers working in the lowest income areas.” That’s a significant difference, although the problem also extends into the home. As the graph below shows, 54 percent of teachers reported that almost or all students had sufficient access to digital tools in school, compared to 18 percent with access at home. 

Fifty-four percent is still a low number for schools, and the FCC can make a positive change with its new plan. The goal is for all schools to reach 100 megabits per 1,000 students, raising that number to 1 gigabit in the future. As President Obama said in a speech outlining his support for school connectivity, “The average American school has about the same bandwidth as the average American home, even though obviously there are 200 times as many people at school as there are at home.” The FCC seeks to change that, although the slow nature of government and the quick-moving nature of technology means schools will most likely always be lagging behind in terms of the most effective forms of service. Still, a slight increase on your monthly phone bill isn’t much to worry about if it means the country’s education system will be improved via access to modern technology. 

Photo Credit: Associated Press