FCC Eyes E-Rate Change to Expand Access

A new FCC proposal wants to make it easier for students to get their homework done on bus rides to and from school or when traveling for sporting events or other activities.

FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel announced a proposal on May 11 that would allow the use of federal E-rate funding for Wi-Fi in school buses. The proposal would clarify that the use of Wi-Fi, or similar access-point technologies, on school buses “serves an educational purpose” and is therefore eligible for E-Rate funding.

“Wiring our school buses is a practical step we can take that is consistent with the history of the E-rate program,” Rosenworcel said in a statement. “This commonsense change could help kids who have no broadband at home.”

The E-Rate program was established in 1996 to help schools and libraries across the country with internet connectivity needs. It has sent billions of dollars to school districts. When the coronavirus pandemic forced students to learn remotely, many advocates urged the federal government to grant permission to use E-Rate funds for home connectivity as well.

Funding for Wi-Fi on school buses is already covered under the Emergency Connectivity Fund, a temporary program that Congress mandated as part of COVID-19 relief measures. But if adopted by the full commission, the proposal from Rosenworcel would make funding permanent.

Keith Krueger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking, said the proposal, if adopted, would be a “victory” and is something that the organization has been advocating for “for a very long time.”

“We believe that buses can be learning spaces for students and help close some of the homework gap,” Krueger said. “If we equip these buses that are used for sporting events and other academic things where they move students around the state, this allows them to be productive and keep up with their schoolwork.”

Rosenworcel has been among the strongest advocates arguing that the FCC should take a more active role in addressing the so-called “homework gap.” “I look forward to having my colleagues join me in approving this step to support the online educational needs of our nation’s schoolchildren,” Rosenworcel said in a statement.

No matter what happens next, Krueger said there’s still work to be done in making the E-rate more flexible in how it supports schools.

“There are also other things that are critical, we believe, such as cybersecurity, that need to be covered by the traditional E-Rate program,” he said.

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