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FCC to consider fee hike to expand high-speed Internet access

Adding $1.90 to phone bills could provide an extra $1.5 billion to outfit schools, libraries with broadband access

The U.S. should spend an additional $1.5 billion a year to make sure every child has access to high-speed Internet connections at school, the head of the Federal Communications Commission said Monday in a proposal that would increase the fees consumers pay each month on their phone bills by roughly $1.90.

If the five-member commission approves the chairman's plan as expected next month, the FCC would be allowed to spend as much as $3.9 billion a year to wire schools and libraries in low-income areas with broadband connections, which educators say are crucial to modern classrooms.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler told reporters Monday that he estimates the average consumer or business would pay an estimated $1.90 extra a year per phone line to make that happen, or about 16 cents per month.

"Unfortunately, while the connected home is commonplace, the connected classroom and library is not," Wheeler said, noting estimates that 63 percent of public schools and over 40 million students don't have high-speed broadband in the classroom.

"Almost two-thirds of America's schools cannot appropriately connect their students to the 21st century," Wheeler said.

Education labor unions and groups have long urged the Federal Communications Commission to lift the years-old $1.5 billion cap on the program's budget.

Consumers and businesses already pay for the FCC program, known as E-Rate, through what's called the "universal service fund." Annual spending could be less than the proposed $3.9 billion cap. But Wheeler and other advocates of expanding the program say the extra money would give local schools and libraries predictability and enable them to plan for costly upgrades.

Ajit Pai, one of the agency's two Republican commissioners, issued a statement Monday opposing the plan.

"Instead of imposing a greater burden on families struggling to make ends meet in this lackluster economy, the commission should pursue fiscally responsible reforms," Pai wrote.

Supporters of expanding E-Rate said they think most Americans support expanding the program.

"Americans understand that it is absolutely critical that every child get a high-quality, digital skill set" today, said Democratic Sen. Edward Markey who helped create E-Rate. "If coffee drinkers assume there will be Wi-Fi access at Starbucks, students should assume the same when they walk into a school."

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