FCC chair proposes small hike in phone fees to expand Internet coverage to low-income areas

The U.S. should spend $1.5 billion more 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 slightly the fees consumers pay each month on their phone bills.

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 that educators say are crucial to modern classrooms.

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FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler told reporters Monday that he estimates the average consumer or business would pay roughly $1.90 extra a year per phone line to make that happen.

"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.

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 Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass. "And right from the very beginning, it is a program that has not received the kind of criticism that other programs have."