Two key Republican lawmakers are opposing a Federal Communications Commission proposal that would expand the E-rate program to allow it to pay for Wi-Fi on school buses and mobile hotspots that schools can loan out to students.
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state sent a letter to FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel on July 31 asking her to “rescind this unlawful plan to vastly expand the E-Rate program.”
The letter—from the top Republicans who sit on the congressional committees that oversee the FCC—came more than a month after Rosenworcel unveiled her “Learn Without Limits” initiative during a speech at the American Library Association’s annual conference in late June.
The proposed changes, if adopted by the full commission, would allow E-rate funding to be used for Wi-Fi on school buses and for Wi-Fi hotspot devices that schools and libraries can loan out to students and patrons. E-rate, established in 1996, has helped schools and libraries connect to the internet at discounted rates but hasn’t been used for home connectivity.
Though students are back to attending school in person, they still need reliable home internet to fully participate in their education. But the number of schools that say they are providing students with home internet access has dropped dramatically since September 2021, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
“At the FCC, we want to make sure that everyone, everywhere has access to high-speed internet service. But we know millions of people in this country are on the wrong side of the digital divide,” Rosenworcel said in a June 26 press release about the initiative. “That’s why it’s time for the FCC to update its E-rate program to reflect these realities to better support libraries and the students and communities they serve.”
The opposition from top Republicans in Congress, however, likely complicates the path to adoption for Rosenworcel’s initiative.
Cruz and Rodgers’ letter “adds a partisanship that makes it difficult to move things ahead fast,” said Keith Krueger, the CEO of the Consortium for School Networking, which represents school technology leaders.
That’s because it could mean that the two Republican FCC commissioners will oppose the proposal as well, he said. The five-member FCC is currently evenly split between Republican and Democratic commissioners, with one vacancy.
“We certainly think it’s important that we get quick action,” Krueger said. “It’s unfortunate that some members of Congress aren’t seeing the value in doing this.”
Cruz and Rodgers say the proposal would lead to ‘wasteful’ spending
Cruz and Rodgers wrote in their letter that Rosenworcel’s proposal to use E-rate funding for Wi-Fi hotspots for schools and libraries to loan out is beyond the commission’s authority and would “duplicate programs across the federal government” and open the door to “wasteful” spending.
The FCC’s E-rate authority is “explicitly confined to classrooms and libraries,” Cruz and Rodgers wrote, so the program shouldn’t be used off campus. They also wrote that E-rate should only be used to fund “services,” not “consumer devices.”
The Republican lawmakers argued that other federal programs are already doing what Rosenworcel is proposing. They cited the Affordable Connectivity Program, a long-term FCC program that provides discounts toward internet service for eligible households, and the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program, which provides funding for planning, infrastructure deployment, and adoption programs to expand high-speed internet access.
Funding for Wi-Fi on school buses is already covered under the Emergency Connectivity Fund, a temporary program that Congress created as part of COVID-19 relief measures. But that program will sunset on June 20, 2024.
In an Aug. 14 written response to the lawmakers’ letter, Rosenworcel said she’s “fully committed to protecting the integrity of the E-Rate program, including taking steps necessary to prevent duplicative funding for the same Wi-Fi hotspots and services across other funding programs.”
Rosenworcel argued that the FCC does have the legal authority to modernize the E-rate program to include Wi-Fi on school buses and Wi-Fi hotspots to meet the “changing technological needs” of “today’s educational environment, where learning often occurs outside of brick and mortar school buildings.”
She added that the proposal would be funded within the program’s current spending cap.
Education groups say ‘there’s a need for it’
Krueger, of the Consortium for School Networking, said that “having that flexibility to use the E-rate for things like Wi-Fi hotspots and Wi-Fi on school buses could really make a really big difference, especially in rural or in high poverty areas.”
According to CoSN’s 2023 State of EdTech Leadership report, only 9 percent of K-12 technology leaders said all their students have broadband access at home, even though a majority of students access their schools’ networks from outside of the school building, Krueger said.
Since the pandemic, and especially during remote learning, many school districts have provided hotspots to increase students’ broadband access outside of school, according to Kajeet, a company that provides wireless internet connectivity and management tools. Other districts also provided Wi-Fi on school buses that were set up as connectivity hubs during pandemic school closures.
Students aren’t always going from school to home, said Amy Worst, a senior marketing manager for Kajeet. “They might be student athletes. They might work a job after school. They might go to grandma’s house some days,” so giving them hotspots “allows them to be connected no matter where they are.”
But there’s been a decline in the number of districts giving out hotspots, mostly because districts “can’t find the funding. It wasn’t because they didn’t see the need” for those approaches, Worst said.
“There’s no question that there’s a need for it,” Worst said. Many districts invested money and other resources in helping students connect outside the classroom, and “they need more funding to sustain and grow those programs.”
The last part of Rosenworcel’s “Learn Without Limits” proposal is a grant program that school districts could apply for to protect against cyberattacks. Cruz and Rodgers’ letter didn’t mention opposition to that part, which “hopefully” means the FCC “can move forward on” that piece, Krueger said.
The FCC will have to vote on each of Rosenworcel’s proposals, but experts say she will likely wait until she has a Democratic majority.
The Senate Commerce Committee in July voted to approve President Joe Biden’s nominee for the fifth commissioner seat—Anna Gomez—but the full Senate still has to vote on her nomination. Cruz has said he will vote against confirming her.
Gomez is Biden’s second nominee for the seat, after his previous choice, Gigi Sohn, withdrew earlier this year following a 16-month battle.
If approved by the full commission, the proposal will have to go through a formal rulemaking and public comment period before it’s enacted.