This week, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler announced plans to increase funding for E-Rate, a federal program that helps connect schools and libraries in neighborhoods in need to the Internet. 

Media industry watchers and Net Neutrality advocates may be justifiably skeptical of the Federal Communications Commission's Chairman Tom Wheeler.

But the beleaguered former wireless and cable industry lobbyist continues to complicate his public image with FCC initiatives -- beyond the contentious Open Internet arena -- which are gaining praise from advocacy groups concerned with universal education, the digital divide, and connectivity for low-income Americans, including Latinos.

Earlier this week, Wheeler announced his plans to propose a $1.5 billion increase in spending for a federal program bringing high-speed Internet access to schools and libraries in places where Americans are still stranded on the other side of the digital divide.

Increasing E-Rate Will Raise Your Phone Bill...

The program, known as E-Rate, is part of the Universal Service Fund. Its budget cap is currently $2.4 billion, but the FCC will request it be raised to $3.9 billion, according to a report based on what an anonymous, though authorized, FCC official told The New York Times.

The increase in spending would lead to an increase in most of average consumers' monthly phone bills -- but not by much. Wireless and landline phone companies must pay towards the Universal Service Fund by law, in order to help expand access to telecommunications for people and places in the U.S. that the market leaves behind. And many companies pass that cost onto consumers.

...(But Not by Much)

Those consumers shouldn't worry over the proposed increase emptying their wallets. If authorized, the $1.5 billion increase will only affect average phone bills to the tune of about $1.90 per year per phone line, according to Time.

The Reason for E-Rate

Because of infrastructure costs, the U.S.'s unique and expansive geography, and market imbalances (some might also point the finger at a stunning lack of local competition in the telecommunications industry), the digital divide disproportionally affects a lot of low-income and rural communities.

For example, The New York Times noted that about 70 percent of rural districts lack high-speed Internet, while schools in low-income, often urban, areas are three times more likely to fail to meet speed targets than those in affluent communities.

Broadband costs often vary wildly from place to place, as well: A Mississippi district Wheeler visited earlier this year paid $750 per month for a gigabit connection that serves its schools, while a similar district in nearby Louisiana had to pay $5,000 for the same connection, according to the Times report.

Latinos, the Digital Divide, and E-Rate

The lack of affordable or accessible Internet directly affects many low-income Latinos. While Latinos have been statistically shown to own smartphones at a disproportionally high rate compared to the average American, studies published as recently as 2013 looking at home broadband access via computers show that only 53 percent of Hispanic families have that kind of Internet access -- nearly 20 percent behind the national average.

(Photo : Pew) Counting smartphones as broadband, as Pew did in one 2013 Internet connectivity survey pictured above, as many as 3 out of 4 Latinos are doing pretty well. Looking only at home broadband access, though, exposes the continuing digital divide.

Try to complete a homework (or work) assignment using your smartphone and only a cellular data connection, and you'll quickly understand how valuable broadband WiFi access in local schools and libraries can be. Which is why the National Hispanic Media Coalition -- a leading civil rights and media advocacy group representing Latinos -- has praised Wheeler's most recent move.

NHMC and Others Praise Proposal

In a statement released to Latin Post late on Tuesday, NHMC executive VP and general counsel Jessica J. González praised Wheeler's proposal:

I congratulate Mr. Wheeler and the FCC for this important step in bridging the digital divide. I am especially grateful to Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel for championing this effort, and to Commissioner Mignon Clyburn for her leadership in modernizing Lifeline to defray the costs of home broadband for the poor. Personally, these efforts mean a lot to me, as I have directly benefited from this country's investment in schools, libraries and programs like Lifeline to be where I am today as an active participant in this country's democracy. Together, modernization of E-rate and Lifeline will dramatically change lives and provide a pathway out of poverty for millions of Americans.

(Lifeline is also a USF program. It provides discounted telephone service for low-income Americans.)

Other education and technology access advocacy groups, like Connected Nation and the International Society for Technology in Education, joined NHMC in praising Wheeler's proposal, in turns calling it "an important and welcome development" and "visionary." 

Wheeler's Master Plan to Close the Digital Divide

E-Rate has been around since 1997, and has had much success over its first years in bringing the Internet to the approximately 86 percent of schools that didn't have any connection when E-Rate began into the modern era.

But this year, Wheeler has been working to modernize and refresh E-Rate in a major way. Having already doubled its funding this year by scraping unused funds together from other programs, Wheeler also announced in February 2014 a major overhaul of E-Rate, as we previously reported.

Established at a time when 56k connections were still common and useful, the modernized E-Rate program, under Wheeler, will abandon outdated initiatives like providing paging services, dial-up Internet, and free email accounts to low-income communities.

Instead, E-Rate will focus on expanding 3+ Mbps broadband connections and installing WiFi networks in schools and libraries that need it. Ultimately, Wheeler's ambitious plan for the new E-Rate is to provide all public schools with 100 Mbps broadband by 2015.

"The data we have collected," Mr. Wheeler told the Times, "suggests that in many cases broadband service providers can do a lot better for our nation's schools and libraries."

Now if he would only realize that's also true for everyone else.