Senate Democrats Revive Calls for FCC to Expand E-Rate Coverage

Staff Writer

Senate Democrats earlier this month resounded their call for the Federal Communications Commission to expand E-rate coverage to connections in students’ homes, as demand for remote learning shows no signs of abating.

In a letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, 38 Senate Democrats said that despite Pai’s “narrow interpretation” of the statute authorizing the program, the law doesn’t prevent the commission from expanding the E-rate program from covering connectivity in schools to funding connections in students’ homes.

E-rate is a $4 billion federal program overseen by the FCC that provides discounts for internet connectivity devices and services for schools and libraries.

The Communications Act states that funds must be used for equipment located only in physical school and library buildings. Citing this fact, Pai has said he believes Congress must pass new legislation to change that language to provide funding for in-home internet connections.

But in their letter, sent this month, Democrats pointed out that in 2011, then-FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski authorized a pilot program to fund off-premises connectivity services for mobile learning devices. And in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, then-Chairman Kevin Martin led the commission in approving a waiver of statutory requirements allowing greater access to FCC-managed funding.

A Pai spokesperson didn’t respond to an email asking whether Pai had changed his position on the issue since he commented in March.

Democratic lawmakers and Democratic FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel in March called on Pai to use emergency powers to change commission rules to provide E-rate funds for use of devices and internet connection services at home by students.

“As schools across the country continue to rely on remote learning for the duration of this pandemic, we believe that the nationwide demand for E-Rate funding will only grow,” the letter says.

The lawmakers also raised the Emergency Educational Connections Act, which would provide $4 billion to the E-rate program, and support home learning, prioritizing students, staff, and others who don’t have access to necessary equipment and services.

But, the senators added that the FCC should not wait for Congress to act to provide greater E-rate flexibility. They asked Pai to provide a response by Oct. 1.

“The E-Rate program is, and has been for over twenty years, an important source of funding to connect the nation’s schools and libraries to the internet,” the letter says. “As a result, community institutions across the United States already trust and are involved with the program, which should ensure that any distribution of new resources through E-Rate will proceed without bureaucratic delay.”

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