Earlier this month the Federal Communications Commission approved a measure that would increase consumer wireless service fees in order to subsidize a greater amount of the cost of Internet connectivity for public schools and libraries.
The E-Rate program was created in 1996 as a part of the Telecommunications Act in order to pay for improvements to school and library telecommunication services in disadvantaged areas. Currently the program receives $2.25 billion each year to provide Internet access to underserved school districts and communities. The FCC voted to increase funding for the program by $1.5 billion, bringing the total to nearly $4 billion. This is a major step forward in making Internet access available to every student, as the program's budget hasn't increased in almost a decade.
According to FCC estimates, the increased fees will only result in an additional $1.90 per year for each phone line, which comes out to less than $6 per household annually. In a statement, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said that increasing funding for the E-Rate program comes down to a moral issue: ensuring all children are provided with the same advantages when it comes to their education. Wheeler added that while he can understand why there has been some opposition to the fee increase, he was "aghast at the hostility" directed at the commission's plan to improve access to critical technology for underprivileged students.
Part of the funding increase is being earmarked for the expansion of Wi-Fi coverage over the next few years. Increasing the reach of Internet access in underserved areas enables less privileged schools to provide 1:1 programs to their students and allow students who would otherwise be isolated from the Internet.
Easing program requirements, increasing access
Along with an increase in funding, the FCC also passed multiple minor rule changes that provide different options for IT infrastructure and enable more institutions to benefit from the program. Schools and other educational organizations can now purchase a dark fiber infrastructure that allows them to build their own high-speed networks if that is a more cost-effective option than traditional operations. Carriers subsidized under the program are also now required to offer educational institutions in high cost rural areas similar rates to their urban counterparts.
School and library officials have expressed concern in recent years that the software and devices necessary to provide students with a modern education now cost more than can be covered with the available funds from the E-Rate program. Increasing the budget and refocusing the program's mission will help close the technology gap between schools, according to supporters.