The Federal Communications Commission has announced it is waiving rules for the E-Rate program to allow companies new freedom to provide schools with free services and equipment to improve internet connectivity.
The waiver was issued by the FCC’s Wireline Competition Bureau, as districts across the country scramble to explore virtual learning amid disruptions caused by the coronavirus.
The agency said the waiver will remain in place until Sept. 30.
The E-Rate program provides discounts to help U.S. schools and libraries to improve internet access. The base cap on E-Rate funding is an annual amount of $4.15 billion. Funds are provided based on demand.
The waiver will let service providers give free equipment and services—such as mobile hotspots, improved connections, and connected devices—to E-Rate participants, including school districts, during the coronavirus outbreak.
Commission rules normally prevent E-Rate participants from accepting anything of value from a service provider, but the new flexibility will allow schools and libraries to accept improved capacity, Wi-Fi hotspots, networking gear, or other equipment and services to support teachers, students, and librarians during the COVID-19 outbreak, the FCC said in a press release.
“We strongly encourage service providers and equipment makers to partner with schools and libraries to provide mobile hotspots and other broadband-enabled devices to students to help bridge the digital divide during the coronavirus pandemic,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement.
Pai has called on all network operators to prioritize connectivity needs of those that serve schools and libraries to work with them on remote learning opportunities.
Keith Krueger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking, an advocacy and professional association for K-12 technology leaders, said the waiver is a good stopgap that will give schools improved remote-learning options.
There has been a spike in interest, particularly in districts trying to serve low-income families, in mobile hotspots, donated devices, and discounted Internet service, Krueger said.
“All of those are urgently needed to fill the gaps [and ensure we are] providing broadband to the home — and that’s essential if learning has gone online,” he said.
The FCC’s Wireline Competition Bureau last week granted a 35-day extension of the deadline for E-Rate applicants to submit the second and final form (FCC Form 471) required to apply for E-Rate.
The WCB is an FCC agency that develops policies for wireline telecommunications.
The submission deadline for Funding Year 2020 FCC Form 471’s was originally scheduled for March 25, but the FCC will now accept the forms through April 29, to give districts more flexibility amid the coronavirus outbreak, according to the WCB.
The general deadline for the first form to be filed by E-Rate applicants, FCC Form 470, was Feb. 26.