Democratic Senators Seek Emergency E-Rate Access for Distance Learning

Some Democratic Senators are calling on the FCC to free up E-rate schools and libraries broadband subsidy money to insure students have internet access at home. 

The E-rate provides schools and libraries "discounts on telecommunications, telecommunications services, and Internet access, as well as internal connections, managed internal broadband services and basic maintenance of internal connections." 

Related: Pai Asks ISPs for Coronavirus Help

Many libraries have also closed due to the coronavirus. 

In a letter to FCC chair Ajit Pai, they asked that the FCC allow the $2 billion as-yet unallocated $4 billion in the E-rate fund to be used for WiFi capability or devices for students who do not have internet access at home.  

Schools have been closed to millions of students and teachers are drawing up new distance learning curricula to keep teaching during the coronavirus-driven closures and quarantines and social distancing. 

They want the FCC to figure out how much can be spent on one-time discounts. The Democrats say the virus is revealing the the extent of the so-called homework gap, a reference to the 70% of teachers who give homework that requires internet access. 

They also want the FCC to "make it clear" to states and localities that undertake similar measures that it will not affect their future 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,” they wrote. “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.” 

Singing on to the letter were Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), a driving force behind creation of the E-rate subsidy, and Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Angus S. King, Jr. (I-Me.), and Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.). 

Independently, ISPs have already been taking numerous steps to make it easier for kids in families without broadband to bridge that distance learning gap in the age of coronavirus. 

Comcast, for one, is giving any low-income household with school-age children not currently getting Comcast broadband 60 days of free service with no contract, which means they could use the service with no obligation to continue once the virus is contained.

And beginning Monday (March 16) Altice USA is offering homes with students, including college students, free broadband for 60 days. 

AT&T is underwriting the cost of setting up a “one-stop” resource center to support the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA), which is developing tools for parents, teachers and schools. 

In addition, a host of ISPs are opening their WiFi hotspots to nonsubs for free, which was one of the elements of a connectivity pledge FCC chairman Ajit Pai asked, and ISPs agreed, to sign

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.