FCC Chair Seeks Emergency E-rate Relief for Schools Hit by Hurricanes

By Benjamin Herold — October 26, 2017 2 min read
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Federal Communications Chairman Ajit Pai is pushing an emergency order to help schools and libraries in hurricane-ravaged areas of Florida, Puerto Rico, and Texas reconnect to the internet.

“This order would provide targeted financial support to these institutions through the FCC’s E-rate program and give them maximum flexibility as they try to restore connectivity,” Pai said in a statement released Wednesday. “It would also make available additional funds to schools that are serving a substantial number of students displaced by this season’s hurricanes.”

Pai’s hope is that the commission will take an internal vote to approve the measure as soon as possible, before the FCC’s next open meeting, scheduled for November 16. The full text of the chairman’s draft order has not been made public; the commission has only recently begun releasing draft text of items up for vote at the monthly open meeting, and is still weighing whether to do so for items circulated for internal votes.

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Last month, in the wake of the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey along Texas’s Gulf Coast, the Texas Education Agency sent a letter to the FCC requesting “expedited assistance” for “the repair and restoration of impacted telecommunications networks procured through the E-rate program in Texas.”

Within the 58 counties that were declared federal disaster areas are 250 school districts, 43 charter schools, and 313 private schools serving more than 1.9 million students, the TEA’s letter states.

As a result, the agency requested a “Special Harvey Funding Window” that would make new E-rate funds immediately available; give affected schools and libraries a 90 to 100 percent discount on E-rate supported services and equipment; extend filing and construction deadlines; and allow for more E-rate funds than are currently available to be used for internal Wi-FI services and equipment.

And on October 4, following the “catastrophic impact” of Hurricanes Irma and Maria on the island of Puerto Rico, the U.S. territory’s education secretary sent a similar letter to the commission in the hopes of restoring operations to more than 1,100 schools as quickly as possible.

Among the requests made by Julia B. Keleher:

  • The opportunity to use E-rate funds that have been awarded to schools that were subsequently closed to be reallocated to open schools now recovering from the hurricances.
  • Extended filing windows and relaxed rules around competitive bidding for schools seeking E-rate funds this year.
  • Like Texas is seeking, a waiver of the E-rate’s “Category 2" budget cap of $150 per student for internal Wi-Fi services and equipment.

“Although we are requesting relief we think will provide the broadest and most immediate relief for our island, much of the requested support will also benefit schools and libraries in our sister regions of the U.S. Virgin Islands, Texas, and Florida also devastated by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and/or Maria,” Keleher wrote.

Photo: A classroom in the Luis M. Santiago school in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico, remains filled with debris and mud weeks after Hurricane Maria devastated much of the island territory.-- David Santiago/Miami Herald via AP

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.

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