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FCC, Congress Weigh Overhaul of E-Rate to Fund Remote Learning

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The Federal Communications Commission is in talks with congressional leaders to change the E-rate program to allow it provide funding for in-home connectivity and device use away from school, an agency spokesperson told Education Week.

As school districts continue to close across the country, policymakers are discussing how best to quickly disperse federal money for remote learning through the E-rate, a major program overseen by the FCC that provides support for improved Internet access in schools and libraries.

The E-rate program is currently capped at $4.15 billion annually. The fund has about $1.5 billion that is unused for this funding year, which ends on June 30.

But language in the federal Communications Act prohibits the agency from using E-Rate for students' home use of wireless devices and services, directing E-Rate funds to be provided for support of connectivity in classrooms only, according to the office of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.

Based on this language, the FCC cannot subsidize home use of connectivity services and devices without authorization from Congress, said a spokesperson for Pai, a Republican.

A group of 18 senators and FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, are calling on Pai to use emergency powers to quickly change FCC rules to authorize E-Rate funding to foster students' use of devices and connection services at home. 

In a statement to Education Week, Rosenworcel said while she would welcome congressional guidance, the FCC should speed up the process by implementing an emergency rule change to loan mobile hotspots to students, particularly those who lack adequate Internet connection.

Internet Bottleneck

Many districts are scrambling to figure out ways to provide students with virtual learning, as well as print-based academic resources. They're also trying to figure out how to do so equitably, particularly since students from poor families may lack devices and reliable connectivity at home.

A recent Education Week survey revealed the scope of the challenge facing districts. Forty-one percent districts said they are not currently capable of providing virtual lessons to all students during a coronavirus shutdown. Just 22 percent said they could provide remote learning for as long as is needed.

A Rosenworcel aide said that as classrooms migrate online, the FCC can interpret the Communications Act language to mean that students must be virtually connected wherever they are physically located, and issue E-Rate rulemaking accordingly.

The FCC is made up of five commissioners, and is controlled by Republicans. The commission currently comprises three Republicans and two Democrats.

Several pieces of draft legislation to address remote learning are currently under consideration by Congress, said Michael Flood, senior vice president of strategy for Kajeet, a company that sells mobile Wi-Fi hotspots and other devices allowing students to access the internet from home.

Flood, who has been in contact with policymakers and has seen several drafts of federal legislation, said lawmakers are working to determine the specific means to provide needed technology to students and teachers, and to distribute necessary funds.

"They're all moving very, very quickly, and we've been talking about it all week," Flood said.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee, and the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions did not respond to Education Week requests for comment.

The FCC already took a step this week aimed at helping school districts serve students virtually during the coronavirus outbreak. The agency said it is temporarily waiving rules that limit private companies' ability to provide schools receiving E-rate funds with free products and services.

Photo of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai during the 2017 debate on net neutrality.  --Jacquelyn Martin/AP


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