The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has proposed allowing schools and libraries to apply for funding from the FCC’s E-Rate program for Wi-Fi hotspots and wireless internet access services that can be used off-premises.

The FCC said that as students and educators increasingly rely on remote educational tools and the online space becomes part of the classroom, the commission wants to update the E-Rate program to help meet these educational needs.

“During the pandemic we saw the power of community-driven efforts to help close the digital divide,” said FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel.

“Many schools and libraries found ways to support internet access by loaning out Wi-Fi hotspots,” she said. “Some used this agency’s Emergency Connectivity Fund to do so. 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.”

“Supporting today’s libraries and schools means updating the E-Rate program to ensure communities can learn without limits and keep connected,” Rosenworcel said.

The FCC’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking proposes making clear that off-premises use of Wi-Fi hotspots and wireless internet access services by students, school staff, and library patrons for remote learning and the provision of virtual library services serves an educational purpose and enhances access to advanced telecommunications and information services for schools and libraries.

“During the COVID pandemic we saw firsthand the positive impact that resulted from providing Wi-Fi connectivity for students and library patrons through hotpots,” said FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks.

“I’m glad that we have learned from our experiences in the Emergency Connectivity Fund and propose to permit eligible schools and libraries to receive E-Rate support for Wi-Fi hotspots and wireless Internet services to be used off-campus for remote learning and educational purposes,” he said. “These devices, with the same restrictions for E-Rate funded hotspots as any other E-Rate funded connections in a school, would update and modernize the E-Rate program consistent with how education occurs today.”

While the proposal was supported by Democratic members of the commission – who hold the majority on the five-member FCC – Republican members expressed opposition.

“Today, we are asked to believe that when Congress says schools, classrooms, and libraries, it actually means private homes, offices, amusement parks, and, really, anywhere and everywhere a mobile hotspot could be used,” said FCC Commissioner Nathan Simington. “I am disappointed by this rapidly metastasizing disregard for the law. It is not clear at this point that there is any location where the commission would decline to fund connectivity on the premise that someone, sometime, might decide to study there.”

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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