The Federal Communications Commission proposed a rule Wednesday allowing schools and libraries to use E-Rate funds for Wi-Fi hotspots and off-premises internet services. The FCC’s E-Rate program provides funding for schools and libraries to access broadband.
The Emergency Connectivity Fund, a $7.2 billion federal COVID-19 pandemic relief program formed by the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, helped districts make one-time purchases of Wi-Fi hotspots during temporary school closures at the height of the health crisis. From the Emergency Connectivity Fund, the FCC allocated more than $123 million to schools and libraries to purchase Wi-Fi hotspots and $1.3 billion to provide off-premises broadband access for students, staff and library patrons.
The Emergency Connectivity Fund is set to expire June 30, 2024.
“During the pandemic we saw the power of community-driven efforts to help close the digital divide. Many schools and libraries found ways to support internet access by loaning out Wi-Fi hotspots,” said Jessica Rosenworcel, chairwoman of the FCC, in a Nov. 8 statement.
Rosenworcel has been a longtime proponent of increasing internet access for students outside of traditional school hours to close the digital divide.
“The program made a great down payment on closing the digital divide, but it was a one-time effort. Now, it’s time for a permanent solution,” said Rosenworcel.
The FCC estimates that 4.5 million students, school staff and library patrons received mobile broadband services and hotspots through the Emergency Connectivity Fund during the 2021-22 school year. The average cost of mobile broadband service or a hotspot was about $294 per user per year, the FCC said.
“Given that the demand for E-Rate program funding has consistently fallen below the program’s funding cap in recent years, we believe the cost of funding Wi-Fi hotspots and services for off-premises use could be accomplished within the E-Rate program’s existing budget,” the FCC’s proposed rule stated.
The proposal comes on the heels of the FCC’s October approval of an expansion of the E-Rate program to support Wi-Fi on school buses.
However, not everyone supports Rosenworcel’s efforts to expand the E-Rate program’s scope, particularly for school bus Wi-Fi. For instance, lawmakers including Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., said in a joint statement such a move is unlawful and will subsidize “children’s unsupervised internet access to social media sites like TikTok and Instagram on their bus rides to and from school.”
The public comment period on the proposed expansion of the E-Rate program to fund school and library hotspots is open for 30 days from its publication Nov. 8.