The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced that it will allow E-Rate funding to be used for Wi-Fi on school buses beginning in funding year 2024 as the Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF) program is set to sunset.

In a press release, the FCC explained that the ECF program has provided resources to help students get and stay connected for online learning, with hundreds of school districts using the funding to equip school buses with Wi-Fi connections. The commission said its decision is intended to enhance the “benefits and the reach of the E-Rate program to ensure that the millions of students caught in the Homework Gap can more fully engage in their learning.”

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel called the decision “smart, creative, and consistent with the statute.”

Commissioner Anna Gomez said expanding Wi-Fi access to school buses is “an important piece of the puzzle to address the needs of students and teachers through the E-Rate program.” Gomez added that “moreover, I support this action because we have evidence that it works.  Thanks to Congress’s recognition of the importance of connectivity during the pandemic and the FCC’s quick action to stand up the Emergency Connectivity Program, we know that Wi-Fi on school buses can make a difference for many students, and particularly for those communities most often caught on the wrong side of the digital divide.”

The E-Rate program, which was authorized as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and created by the FCC in 1997, is aimed at improving access to advanced telecommunications and information services for all public and nonprofit elementary and secondary school classrooms and libraries.

The FCC said its decision to extend E-Rate funding to school bus Wi-Fi services “clarifies that the use of Wi-Fi, or other similar access point technologies, on school buses serves an educational purpose and the provision of such service is therefore eligible for E-Rate funding.”

This ruling also directs the Wireline Competition Bureau to fund Wi-Fi on school buses, as well as any E-Rate-eligible equipment needed to enable the service, as part of funding year 2024 eligible services list proceeding and seek comment on the specific services and equipment that should be funded.

The decision to expand what the E-Rate program will fund was not unanimous, but rather fell along party lines with Democratic commissioners voting in favor of the expansion and Republican members dissenting.

“The FCC has provided over $60 million in ECF funds to provide Wi-Fi on school busses so far, but we lack an accounting of the number of students that have been connected or the ways in which these connections have been used,” FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr said in his dissenting statement. “I have previously sounded the alarm that a lack of coordination and accounting of federal broadband funding could result in significant waste and an inability to track the efficacy of federal spending.  I am concerned that is what we are seeing here.”

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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk SLG's Assistant Copy & Production Editor, covering Cybersecurity, Education, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs