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FCC to Vote on Big Funding Increase for E-Rate Program

The Federal Communications Commission is scheduled to vote Thursday on a major increase in funding for the E-rate program, a step that many school and library officials have sought for years, yet one that has drawn a cold response from some Republicans.

The proposal unveiled last month by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler would raise the overall funding cap for the program—which has been stagnant for years—from $2.4 billion to $3.9 billion annually.

In an era when many school budgets are only beginning to rebound from the Great Recession, and funding to meet schools' pressing technology needs remains tight, the FCC plan would amount to a substantial infusion of cash for K-12 systems.

What's more, the spending plan does not have to make it through a divided Congress. Wheeler needs only to secure a majority of votes on the five-member commission, three of whose members are Democrats. 

The E-rate program supports improvements in school and library telecommunications services, particularly for disadvantaged communities. Its funding comes from fees on telecommunications providers—charges that get passed on to consumers on phone bills.

The FCC, which is not expected to officially release the details of its plan until today, estimates that the funding increase would result in consumers paying a maximum of an additional $1.90 a year per phone line, or less than $6 per household.

Today, the average total fees paid by a household with three phone lines are a little more than $34 a year, the FCC estimated.

The FCC's two Republican members, Ajit Pai and Michael O'Rielly, issued statements lambasting the proposal shortly after Wheeler outlined his plan, so if the commission approves it, odds seem good that GOP panelists would end up on the dissenting end of the vote.

Pai has labeled the proposal a "post-election tax increase," and O'Rielly said the plan would heap new costs on the public. The FCC should instead focus on stripping bureaucracy and waste from the program, O'Rielly said.

"Instead of imposing a greater burden on families struggling to make ends meet in this lackluster economy, the commission should pursue fiscally responsible reforms," he said in a statement last month.

The funding increase comes five months after the FCC approved an initial series of policy changes designed to streamline the program and make sure that funding flows toward up-to-date technology coveted by schools, rather than outdated systems.

Those changes boosted Wi-Fi funding for schools and libraries by $1 billion a year over the next two years, and took other steps Wheeler predicts will modernize the program, increase transparency, and drive down prices for funding applicants. At the time, backers of those changes described them as a "first step" to overhauling the program, to be followed by a push for more money.

On Thursday, Wheeler and other backers of his plan will decide whether to take the next step—and significantly increase the flow of technology funding to schools and libraries in poor communities.


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