Consumer phone bills will go up slightly next year after federal officials voted Thursday to increase federal funding for high-speed Internet access to schools and libraries across the country.
The Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 Thursday to increase a federal subsidy fund that covers some costs of Internet access to schools and libraries by $1.5 billion per year. For years, the fund didn’t increase with inflation. Consequently, demand for funding far exceeded the current $2.4 billion cap, and several Democratic FCC commissioners said this increase will go a long way toward helping bring more schools online.
“Today we choose a future where all American kids have access to digital-age learning no matter who they are, where they live or where they go to school,” said Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel.
Consumers fund the so-called Universal Service Fund via a charge on their monthly phone bills. FCC officials said that for now the increase will cost an average of 16 cents a month, or about $2 a year.
The FCC’s two Republican members voted against the proposal over concerns about increasing monthly phone bills for consumers, how the new funds would be distributed to schools and allowing the Universal Service Fund to grow larger.
“Families in the rest of America are sick of being nickel and dimed by Washington politicians,” Republican FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai said Thursday.
Fiscal conservatives have long worried about further expanding the USF fund because it has ballooned in size since 1998 when it provided $2.3 billion in subsidies. Last year, the fund provided $8.3 billion in subsidies to telecommunications providers for phone or Internet services.
The fund also subsidizes the costs of providing phone service in rural areas and for low-income consumers. The program has been beset with fraud and wasteful spending over the years, despite the FCC’s oversight efforts.
“I’m aghast at the hostility that is expressed to giving students the tools they need to get a 21st century education,” FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said, in response to Republican complaints about the proposal.
Earlier this year, the FCC also took steps to provide more funding to help schools expand Wi-Fi access in their buildings.
“We need to have that connectivity,” said Daisy Dyer Duerr, principal at St. Paul Elementary School in rural Arkansas, during the FCC meeting. Educators from across the country and several local students crowded into the agency to watch the vote.
Just a few years ago, Duerr’s school, where 80 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunches, was among the lowest rated in the state, she said, but that has changed thanks to efforts to improve the school, including fast Internet access. “Our kids haven’t even had access to anything, so we’ve got to throw them out in the water and give them that accessibility,” she said.
The meeting was briefly interrupted by protestors complaining that the FCC has not yet taken action on net neutrality rules for broadband lines. “You’ve just seen the First Amendment at work,” Wheeler told students who’d come to the meeting, after protestors climbed up on the dais to unfurl a white “reclassify now!!” banner behind his head.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.