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FCC chairman on schools: Basic connectivity is now inadequate

Chairman Tom Wheeler makes his case for higher-speed Internet access in schools, proposing a plan to increase the monthly fee in phone bills by 16 cents to cover new investment.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler is on a mission to hook up schools with faster Internet.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler pushes for more investment in education. Screenshot by Marguerite Reardon/CNET

Wheeler on Monday laid out a plan to increase the so-called E-Rate fee on phone bills -- a longtime program that funds Internet access to schools and libraries -- by 16 cents a month, or just under $2 a year, as part of a more aggressive plan to get wider and faster Internet access to schools and libraries in the US. The current fee is 99 cents a month.

Wheeler and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) were on a conference call to introduce the proposal. He will later circulate the plan to his fellow commissions, who take a vote on it on December 11. The New York Times reported on the FCC plan ahead of the announcement Monday.

The proposal comes as it becomes increasingly critical for children to have reliable access to the Internet in schools and libraries to compete on the global stage. There has also been an increasing disparity between schools in affluent, urban areas and schools in lower-income, rural areas over Internet access, with some latter facilities unable to get higher-speed Internet access if they wanted to. Both men stressed the need to "reboot" the current program to provide more funding to schools.

"The failure to do so will mean children in some communities will continue to be bypassed by opportunities in the 21st century," Wheeler said. "We can do better than that for our children."

While schools and libraries in the US have basic Internet connections, they lack higher-speed access critical to modern learning programs.

"Basic connectivity is now inadequate connectivity," Wheeler said.

The FCC has set a goal of bringing Internet speeds of 100 megabits per second to schools with 1,000 students, with a longer-term goal of upping that speed to 1 gigabit per second. But to meet those goals, schools need access to faster fiber-optic lines that aren't necessarily available in rural areas -- or are prohibitively expensive.

The additional proposed fee, which is under the broader Universal Service Fund, would add to the coffers of schools looking to invest in higher-speed access. Wheeler said the proposal would have policies that would directly help rural schools.

"If coffee drinkers assume there's Wi-Fi in a Starbucks, students should assume there's Wi-Fi in the classroom," Markey said.

But FCC Commissioner Mike O'Rielly said he was disappointed by the plan to increase Universal Service Fund and E-Rate program's budget. Beyond the fee, O'Rielly said he believes the FCC will also raise fees on broadband services too. He was also critical of the new plan's lack of reforms to make spending more efficient and targeted.

"Sadly, this action comes at a time when many families are still struggling and businesses are trying to regain their footing in the economy," he said in a statement.

Wheeler noted that the e-rate fee hasn't had an adjustment for inflation in 13 years.

When asked earlier whether the proposal for higher fees would receive any backlash from voters or the government, Markey said that the e-rate program hasn't typically garnered critics because people understand the benefits.

"Americans understand this is critical," Markey said.

Updated at 11:55 a.m. PT: To include FCC Commissioner Mike O'Rielly's comment.