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Pai to Klobuchar: E-Rate Can't Go to Home Connectivity

FCC chairman Ajit Pai continues to make it clear that, as he reads the law, the FCC cannot use E-Rate subsidies for school and library connectivity for home broadband for distance learning.

E-Rate is the Universal Service Fund advanced telecommunications subsidy for high-speed broadband access for schools and libraries. 

Related: FCC Working with DOE to Promote Ed Tech Funding Availability

He spelled out his position in a letter to Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) the FCC has released. 

Pai said he recognizes that schools have had to change the way they teach due to the pandemic and that "it is critical that parents and students stay connected so that they can participate in online learning from home during this crisis."  

But he remains adamant that the language of the statute is clear. 

"[W]e face a major barrier: The Communications Act, which the FCC is duty-bound to administer. He said the Act "expressly limits the FCC's use of E-Rate program funding to broadband and other services delivered to school 'classrooms' and libraries. Connectivity and devices supplied to students at home unfortunately do not qualify for E-Rate support under the law." 

Related: Educators Say Distance Learning Dollars, Equity, Are Keys to Reopening Schools

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) suggested to Pai during an FCC oversight hearing that his reading was too narrow and Congress was OK with him interpreting classroom to mean the new home classroom necessitated by COVID-19, but Pai didn't budge. But he has told Congress he would be happy to spend the E-Rate money on distance learning if Congress changes the statutory language. 

Related: Senate Dems introduce $4 Billion E-Rate Bill 

Pai pointed out to Klobuchar, as he has to others, that there is $16 billion in CARES Act COVID-19 aid funding that states and localities can tap for home connectivity if they choose. He said there is also $3 billion in emergency grants in the Governor's Emergency Education Relief Funds that could be used for remote learning.

He said the FCC has been working with the Department of Education to educate schools on the availability of that local funding.

John Eggerton
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.