Democrats Send Letter Urging FCC to Use E-Rate Program For Virtual Learning

On Thursday a group of Congressional Democrats sent a letter to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) urging the Commission “to provide internet connectivity and devices to students who are unable to participate in online learning during the ongoing” COVID-19 pandemic by using E-Rate program funding. According to the FCC, the E-Rate program helps provide affordable internet access to schools and libraries; the discount level varies depending on a variety of factors.

The letter stated that studies show that 12 million American children “still lack internet access at home and are unable to participate in online learning.” Moreover, the lawmakers added that the “students are disproportionally from communities of color, low-income households, Tribal lands, and rural areas,” and Congress’s previous call to action for the Commission went unanswered under the previous administration. Additionally, the FCC has taken other measures to try to increase broadband access in some of these areas, such as by creating a tribal priority window to license spectrum and a 5G fund for Rural America, among other measures and initiatives.

The lawmakers have asked Acting FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel to use the agency’s emergency authority to “utilize existing E-Rate funding to connect student learning online during the coronavirus pandemic.” The lawmakers claimed that the authorizing statute “does not preclude the FCC from freeing funds to connect students’ homes during the current crisis – which, because schools have had to close their doors, have become de facto classrooms for millions of children.” Consequently, the lawmakers asked the FCC to reverse their previous decision and use the E-Rate funding to provide internet access funds and devices to students for online learning during the pandemic. While the lawmakers noted that the E-Rate funding would not be enough, they claimed it would be a good starting point, after which Congress could pass the Emergency Educational Connections Act, which would provide billions of dollars of additional funding to the E-Rate program to help with connectivity during the pandemic.

This comes after the FCC announced on Feb. 1 that it is seeking public comment to use the E-Rate program funds to support online learning during the pandemic.