3/17/2020 — 

WASHINGTON, DC – As schools are forced to shut down because of coronavirus and students are being asked to learn online, U.S. Senator Jack Reed is urging the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to free up funds to ensure schools can provide kids in need with Internet access.

In a letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, Senator Reed and 15 of his colleagues requested that the FCC allow schools to utilize E-Rate program funding to provide Wi-Fi hotspots or devices with Wi-Fi capability to students who lack Internet access at home.  The E-Rate program is capped at $4 billion each year, with the FCC having already allocated about $2 billion this fiscal year, leaving approximately $2 billion in E-Rates funds available for potential emergency action.

“As students, teachers, and families brace for what could be extended school closures and try to find online solutions to help kids keep up with their studies, we need to ensure that no student is left behind.  Teachers and schools are going above and beyond to put together lesson plans to help every student succeed and the federal government needs to do its part to help bridge the digital divide.  We should be shifting unallocated E-Rate funds to help ensure students can get online and do their homework,” said Senator Reed.

The E-Rate program is an Internet connection subsidy that was created as a part of the 1996 Telecommunications Act to help connect schools and libraries to the Internet and help ensure access for low-income students and families.  Since its inception, E-Rate has provided nearly $52 billion nationwide.

While it wasn’t created for this kind of public health emergency, the Senators say the FCC has the flexibility and authority it needs to put these funds to emergency use.

In their letter, the 16 Senators note: “The E-Rate program is, and has been for over two decades, an essential source of funding to connect the nation’s schools and libraries to the internet.  We believe that the FCC can use its emergency powers to temporarily waive relevant E-rate program rules and allow its beneficiaries to utilize universal service funding to provide home wireless service to existing school devices and hotspots for students who lack internet access at home. This swift, immediate action would help ensure that all students can remotely continue their education during the current public health emergency.”

According to the FCC, “the E-Rate program makes telecommunications and information services more affordable for schools and libraries.  With funding from the Universal Service Fund, E-Rate provides discounts for telecommunications, Internet access, and internal connections to eligible schools and libraries.”

The Senators are asking the FCC to determine how much of this funding be spent on one-time discounts and also write: “We strongly urge you to consider how much of this funding can be spent on one-time discounts for schools seeking to loan Wi-Fi hotspots to students who do not have internet at home, as well as those trying to equip school-distributed devices with Wi-Fi capability that can be lent out while physical classes are on hold. We also request that you make it clear to state and local institutions that undertaking any similar measures during this crisis will not affect their future E-rate eligibility.”

In addition to Senator Reed, the letter is also signed by U.S. Senators Ed Markey (D-MA), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), Patty Murray (D-WA), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Angus S. King, Jr. (I-ME), Michael Bennett (D-CO), and Maggie Hassan (D-NH).

Text of the letter follows:

March 16, 2020

Chairman Ajit Pai
Federal Communications Commission
445 12th Street, SW
Washington, DC 20054

Dear Chairman Pai:

We write to urge the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to take immediate action to ensure all K-12 students have adequate home internet connectivity if their schools close due to the coronavirus pandemic. We believe that the FCC can use its emergency powers to temporarily waive relevant E-rate program rules and allow its beneficiaries to utilize universal service funding to provide home wireless service to existing school devices and hotspots for students who lack internet access at home. This swift, immediate action would help ensure that all students can remotely continue their education during the current public health emergency.

The coronavirus pandemic has shone a bright light on the “homework gap” experienced by 12 million students in this country who do not have internet access at home and are unable to complete their homework – at a time when more than 70% of educators assign schoolwork that requires the internet. Without FCC action, this existing inequity is likely to be exacerbated by the increasing number of schools that are suspending in-person classes and have transitioned to remote learning over the internet to protect the health of students, faculty, and staff. Temporarily changing E-rate rules to allow financial support for home internet access would be of immense help to schools, students, and families at this time.

The E-rate program is capped at $4 billion each year. We understand that the FCC has already allocated about $2 billion this year, leaving approximately half of the funding available for potential emergency action. We strongly urge you to consider how much of this funding can be spent on one-time discounts for schools seeking to loan Wi-Fi hotspots to students who do not have internet at home, as well as those trying to equip school-distributed devices with Wi-Fi capability that can be lent out while physical classes are on hold. We also request that you make it clear to state and local institutions that undertaking any similar measures during this crisis will not affect their future E-rate eligibility.

The E-Rate program is, and has been for over two decades, an essential source of funding to connect the nation’s schools and libraries to the internet. These institutions are vital outlets to help connect all Americans, including millions of students and Americans in both rural and urban parts of the country. As the coronavirus pandemic develops, this program offers a solution that may help mitigate the impact on our most vulnerable families. We call on you to use the FCC’s emergency powers to narrow the homework gap during this crisis, and we look forward to finding a long-term solution when the coronavirus subsides.

Thank you for your attention to this important matter. Due to the closure of many Senate offices during the coronavirus outbreak, physical signatures are unavailable. The listed senators have asked to be signatories to this letter.

Sincerely,