President Barack 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 Mr. Obama's second term.
The initiative is estimated to cost $4 billion to $6 billion, and Mr. Obama wants to pay for it by raising mobile phone user fees. The administration gauges that could work out to about $12 for every cell phone user, paid in fees over three years. Doing so relies on an OK from the Federal Communications Commission, an independent agency that has the power to reject or approve the plan.
Republicans vow to oppose any idea that raises costs on consumers, while others question whether it is appropriate to use the FCC to fund an initiative that is better left to Congress' 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 Fred Upton, R-Mich., House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman. "If they pursue that course, there's going to be pushback, absolutely."
Republicans said that if the proposal moves forward, they will hold hearings and pressure the FCC to side against the proposal, though it is unclear how much they could really do. There are five commission seats -- two filled by Democrats, one by a Republican, and Mr. Obama has nominated candidates for two open seats. 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 to 99 percent of schools within five years, is a case study in how Mr. Obama is trying to accomplish a second-term legacy despite Republican opposition in Congress.
The idea first arrived at the White House doors after the 2012 election, when Education Secretary Arne Duncan and then-FCC chairman Julius Genachowski, Mr. Obama's law school friend, broached the idea.
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.