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U.S. boosting investment in high-speed Internet in schools by $2 billion

Students set up their donated laptop computers on the first day of school at Joplin High School in Joplin, Missouri August 17, 2011. REUTERS
Students set up their donated laptop computers on the first day of school at Joplin High School in Joplin, Missouri August 17, 2011. REUTERS

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Federal Communications Commission, doubling its investment in high-speed Internet at schools, on Monday pledged an additional $2 billion over two years for improving broadband networks in schools and libraries.

The investment comes through E-Rate, a subsidy program funded by fees Americans pay on their monthly phone bills that helps schools and libraries get discounts on Internet services and digital devices.

Created in 1996, E-Rate has been giving schools around $2.4 billion a year. But demand has far exceeded that amount, FCC officials have said, and of all E-Rate funding, only about half has gone toward equipping schools and libraries with true high-speed Internet access, the agency said.

In what FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler called a "business-like approach," the agency would reshuffle how it spends the current E-Rate funds to prioritize high-capacity Internet connections over other purposes and to improve the program's efficiency and management.

While most experts agree on the benefits and the need to modernize E-Rate, opinions have differed on how to fund the changes.

At first the additional funds will come from unused money from previous years, the FCC said in detailing its plans to boost spending on high-speed Internet. Later, funds would come from reforms the FCC is considering for the E-Rate program, such as no longer paying for outdated technologies, including paging or dial-up Internet.

The effort is part of President Barack Obama's push to connect 99 percent of U.S. schools to high-speed broadband and wireless Internet within five years to spur use of digital technology in the classrooms.

Nearly all U.S. schools have access to basic Internet, the FCC said, but the speed and quality at many is far from ideal. The new funds would be targeted toward "the most urgent Internet upgrade needs," the agency said.

The FCC said its increased investment in high-speed Internet will connect 20 million students at 15,000 schools. Wheeler is expected to address the changes further in a speech later this week.

The White House is working with companies such as tech giants Apple Inc and Microsoft Corp, and wireless providers Sprint Corp and Verizon Communications Inc on other ways to improve digital experiences in American schools.

Schools and libraries are clamoring for faster Internet speeds to promote digital learning, which has been shown to improve test scores and graduation rates.

(Reporting by Alina Selyukh; Editing by Karey Van Hall and Dan Grebler)

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