USA: Obama pushes ambitious Internet access plan for schools

dinsdag, 20 augustus 2013 - Categorie: Berichten Internationaal

Bron: .
13 aug. 2013

President Obama liked the idea laid out in a memo from his staff: an ambitious plan to expand high-speed Internet access in schools that would allow students to use digital notebooks and teachers to customize lessons like never before. Better yet, the president would not need Congress to approve it.

White House senior advisers have described the little-known proposal, announced earlier this summer under the name ConnectEd, as one of the biggest potential achievements of Obama’s second term.

There’s just one catch: The effort would cost billions of dollars, and Obama wants to pay for it by raising fees for mobile-phone users. Doing that relies on the Federal Communications Commission, an independent agency that has the power to approve or reject the plan.

Republicans vow to oppose any idea that raises costs for consumers, while others question whether it’s appropriate to use the FCC to fund an initiative that is better left to Congress’s authority.

“Most consumers would balk at higher costs, higher phone bills, and I sure hope that this is not part of the equation that ultimately comes out,” said Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “If they pursue that course, there’s going to be pushback, absolutely.”

Republicans said that if the proposal moves forward, they will hold congressional hearings and pressure the FCC to side against the plan, although it’s unclear how much they could do. There are five seats on the commission — two filled by Democrats, one by a Republican, and Obama has nominated candidates for two open spots. The commission has taken the initial steps in what could be a year-long process before it decides.

ConnectEd, which seeks to provide high-speed Internet service to 99 percent of schools within five years, is a case study in how Obama is trying to accomplish a second-term legacy despite Republican opposition in Congress.

“It’s got a lot of the characteristics of big-vision policy that you really don’t get through legislation anymore,” said Rob Nabors, White House deputy chief of staff, who is coordinating executive actions.

The proposal arrived at the White House after the 2012 election, when Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Julius Genachowski, a law school friend of Obama’s who was FCC chairman at the time, broached the idea.

Inside the White House, there was interest in the policy but concern about the politics.

The proposal makes use of the FCC’s ability to charge consumers fees to fund specific priorities, such as subsidizing phone service for the poor. The program, known as the universal service fund, has received bipartisan support in Congress but has drawn criticism from some telecom companies for raising fees and from some conservatives who oppose what they call handouts.

In the case of ConnectEd, White House officials worried that Obama could be accused of raising taxes on all Americans who use phone or Internet service, amid a broader debate in which Republicans are saying he is trying to raise taxes on the middle class. The cost for the initiative is estimated at $4 billion to $6 billion, and the administration said it could work out to about $12 in fees for every cellphone user over three years.

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