The government is continuing to ponder a small tax on cellphone users in order to expand the government's USF and E-Rate programs so that they can shore up broadband shortcomings. While it was overshadowed by the blossoming NSA scandal at the time, back in June the Obama administration unveiled their "ConnectED" broadband initiative
, which promised to connect 99 percent of America’s students to the Internet within 5 years. The speeds promised are 100 Mbps initially, and 1 Gbps by 2018.
Uncle Sam estimates the improvements would cost between $4 and $6 billion, to be paid for with a tax placed on consumer cellphone bills. The government is currently estimating the cost per cell phone user would be around $12 over three years. That's a fairly insubstantial sum, though it's probably being lowballed to get the idea through the political door.
"...With a relatively modest investment, we could connect 99 percent of schools all across the country to the Internet, and that would expand educational opportunities for students in a really important way," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said in promoting the program this week during a White House press briefing.
The problem is the government has historically not shown itself to be competent enough to manage such programs effectively.
First, thanks to endless deregulation
and corporate cash contributions, the government has helped create a stagnant and largely uncompetitive United States broadband market, where carriers have no incentive to seriously upgrade services, prices remain high, and regulators stare dumbly and complacently at their shoes. Companies have fought like hell to maintain this status quo, and just as hard to prevent under-served towns and cities from wiring themselves
when private industry refuses to.
Second, the government has long done a miserable job when it comes to tracking how corporate broadband subsidies are spent.
The E-Rate system, which you pay into via Universal Service Fund (USF
) fees, is designed to deliver broadband and technology services to the nation's schools and libraries. Instead, like the larger USF, it has historically acted as a corporate slush fund, where money paid in frequently isn't tracked by the government, and spending accountability is minimal to non-existent. This lack of proper oversight has unsurprisingly resulted in more than a little fraud
by both carriers and schools over the years.
"...With a relatively modest investment, we could connect 99 percent of schools all across the country to the Internet, and that would expand educational opportunities for students in a really important way."
-The White House
At various times, between 26% and 40% of USF funds have been poured into E-Rate, and the program has doled out more than $27 billion since its inception in 1998. The program has great potential and occasionally great successes, yet it is repeatedly marred by the fact the FCC historically has not done a good job tracking spending.
For years now, the General Accounting Office (GAO) has issued an endless flood of reports on how the FCC should actually pay attention, and for just as many years the FCC has insisted they'd get right on that. While the fact that many areas have received help shouldn't be overlooked, the program's oversight failures are clear.
A report from 2009 found that 60% of U.S. libraries lacked the bandwidth to support visitors
. That's fairly staggering given the billions thrown at this program, not including the money spent on state and local initiatives as well as private investment.
In short, the government wants to take up to $6 billion more dollars to accomplish goals that really should have been accomplished years ago. Nobody seems to want to correctly reform E-Rate contributions to ensure money is being spent properly before expanding the program, and there's no reason to believe that's going to magically happen with this new initiative. Broadband is historically something both parties pay lip service to, but understand virtually nothing about. Lobbyists dictate the discourse, and the result is obvious.
Were Obama serious about improving school broadband, a good first step would have been preventing incumbent, anti-competitive duopolists from writing laws intended to keep states in the broadband dark ages. Similarly, hiring an FCC boss with the independence, insight and courage to tackle a lack of competition, instead of just another lobbyist
, would have done more for schools than fifty vague "ConnectED" initiatives.