Dems Try to Attach E-Rate Bill to NDAA

Senate Democrats are attempting to add their distance learning E-Rate funding bill to the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

Sen. Ed Markey

Sen. Ed Markey

Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) have proposed their Emergency Educational Connections Act as an amendment on the bill. 

The bill would ensure that all K-12 students have access to "adequate" home broadband connectivity and devices during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Dems signaled last month they would be introducing the bill, the Senate version of a bill introduced by Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.), but would double Chen's $2 billion allocation for the FCC's E-Rate schools and libraries broadband subsidy program to $4 billion because the pandemic could extend far longer than the current academic year, they said.

“We cannot allow the ‘homework gap’ to become a larger ‘learning gap’ during the coronavirus pandemic,” the Senators said in a joint statement. “Without immediate action by Congress and $4 billion in E-Rate funding, millions of students – especially those of low-income families, immigrants, communities of color and rural areas – are at risk of being left behind. We plan to seek any legislative vehicle available to us to make our proposal the law, which will take important strides towards ensuring that all students in America have the connectivity they need to continue their education online during the current crisis.”

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has been calling on Congress to fund distance learning as they did with telehealth. He has said the FCC's hands are tied in terms of using E-rate broadband subsidies for learning-from-home broadband because the subsidy program is statutorily tied to "classrooms."

He has also pointed out that there is about $16 billion in CARES Act funding for states and localities that could be used for distance learning from home. 

The E-Rate is a Universal Service Fund subsidy for advanced telecommunications for schools and libraries.

The bill would clarify that the broadband billions could be used for equipment and service at "locations other than the school."

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.