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Schools could get an Internet speed boost under FCC proposal

The Federal Communications Commission is set to reform an annual $2 billion E-Rate fund, aimed to bring faster and more affordable Internet connections to classrooms and libraries.

The program has doled out more than $22 billion since it was launched in 1998, helping to bring Internet connections to nearly all classrooms in America. But the connections have been slow and costly, and the Government Accountabilty Office said last year the FCC hadn't set clear goals for E-Rate.

In an order set for a vote Thursday, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski will propose that schools and libraries tap into unused fiber networks in towns and cities. Known as "dark fiber," those unused lines can help lift average connection speeds inside and outside classrooms. The FCC said about half of E-Rate recipients report access speeds of about 1.5 megabits per second. About eight in ten recipients say they want faster speeds.

In the proposed order, Genachowski will propose that schools connected to those fiber connections have the option of extending Internet service to students at home. The schools and libraries would be "school spots," the FCC said, a play off the idea of Wi-Fi hot spots, and would anchor Internet service providers in their communities. It will also propose new mobile device programs for learning such as digital textbooks.

The FCC's five commissioners generally support changes to the E-Rate program. Details of the order are sparse and the agency is touting the potential effects of its proposed reforms such as a boom in distance learning and online tutoring. But such programs have been difficult to pull off in the private sector. Meanwhile, carriers may resist plans to use dark fiber, which could make schools and libraries competitors to telecom and cable firms.

By Cecilia Kang  | September 20, 2010; 10:53 PM ET
Categories:  Broadband, FCC  
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