The White House wants to raise cell phone user fees to pay for an ambitious plan to expand high-speed Internet access to schools so students and teachers can use digital notebooks and other high-tech devices.
The so-called ConnectEd program has been described by White House senior advisors as potentially one of the largest achievements of President Barack Obama's second term, reports The Washington Post
But the program could cost billions of dollars and Republicans have promised to oppose any plan that raises consumer costs.
According to the Post, ConnectEd would have a price tag estimated at $4 billion to $6 billion, which would work to about a $12 spread out over three years for every cell phone user.
The initiative would have to be approved by the Federal Communications Commission. But some lawmakers are insisting that Congress should have final approval over funding for the program.
"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," Michigan Republican Rep. Fred Upton, who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, told the Post. "If they pursue that course, there’s going to be pushback, absolutely."
According to the Post, ConnectEd would provide high-speed broadband and wireless access to 99 percent of the nation's schools by 2018.
White House Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors told the Post that the ambitious plan has "a lot of the characteristics of big-vision policy that you really don’t get through legislation anymore."
The FCC has the authority to level universal service fees, which can be used to subsidize certain programs, including phone services for the poor. Such fees have in the past generally drawn support from both Democrats and Republicans. But in the current climate of reduced spending, White House officials worry that some lawmakers might see an executive order authorizing ConnectEd as a way to ram an expensive program through the FCC and bypass Congress.
Former Republican FCC Commissioner Harold Furchtgott-Roth suggested there's plenty of reason for the White House to worry.
"Using the FCC as a way to get around Congress to spend money that Congress doesn’t have the political will to spend — I think that’s very scary," he told the Post. "Constitutionally, it’s Congress that decides how federal funds should be spent."
Ajit Pai, the current Republican FCC Commissioner, also said he opposes increasing fees to pay for ConnectEd. He said in a recent speech there are too many inefficiencies with current programs that use FCC-imposed fees to pay for wiring schools and libraries.
"We shouldn’t force schools to skew their spending decisions in order to help us meet an arbitrary national target," he said.
Still, the White House apparently intends to move ahead with the president's initiative. According to the Post, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough recently told his staff, "We are here to do big things — and we can do this without Congress."
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