Three years after the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the inconsistencies of broadband reach and the lack of internet connection in rural areas, the Federal Communications Commission approved the funding of school bus Wi-Fi hotspots under the federal E-Rate program.
School bus Wi-Fi advocate and FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, cast the deciding vote Thursday to adopt the declaratory ruling. The 3-to-2 vote followed party lines, with new Commissioner Anna Gomez, another Democrat, giving Rosenworcel the vote she needed to push through her “Learning Without Limits” proposal. Democrat Commissioner Geoffrey Starks also voted in favor of school bus Wi-Fi.
Republican Commissioners Brendan Carr and Nathan Simington both dissented, citing regulatory overreach and a lack of data that proves the efficacy and use of school bus Wi-Fi hotspots, echoing concerns from Sen. Ted Cruz and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rogers, chair of the House Energy and Commerce committee.
The E-Rate Universal Service Program was created by Congress in 1996 with the passage of the Telecommunications Act and is administered by the FCC. It has since served as a way to provide funds to libraries and schools to have basic internet connections.
Over the years, the FCC has updated E-Rate to fund not only connected libraries and schools but also to cover services like installing Wi-Fi hotspots throughout school buildings. However, school buses despite their frequent mention as extensions of the classroom have never been included under the same umbrella, and school transportation has remained left out of the funding pool.
However, The Emergency Connectivity Fund established under the American Rescue Plan in 2021 supported the purchase of Wi-Fi hotspots for school buses. It provided $7.17 billion in funding across three application periods. The final funding request almost doubled the available funds.
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Rosenworcel has been advocating for the school bus industry to access the funds for E-rate. “It has helped support broadband in schools and libraries in urban America, rural America and everything in between,” Rosenworcel said Thursday prior to the vote. “But great programs do not thrive without continuous attention and care. We need to make sure R-rate meets the moment and keeps doing good.”
She cited examples of schools and students that have and would have benefited from Wi-Fi hotspots on school buses. “Today, we make clear that schools can use E-rate funds to outfit school buses with Wi-Fi,” she said. “This is smart, creative and consistent with the statue. Section 254 [of the Telecommunications Act] sets up the E-Rate program and provides us with authority to use it for additional services for educational purposes.”
Rosenworcel has consistently alluded to the school bus as an extension of the classroom. “I am proud of what we are doing today,” she continued. “We are going to close the homework gap and get more kids connected for school.”
Reg Leichty, legislative counsel to the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) and founder of Foresight Law, explained that the FCC’s Wireline Competition Bureau must now publish a supplemental Eligible Services List (ESL) for the 2024 funding year. Public comment will then open to discuss the specific services and equipment that should qualify to deliver Wi-Fi on buses.
“Normally, the comment period would be 30 or 60 days, but it may take a few months to complete the procedural steps, publish the notice in the Federal Register, take comments, review comments, and then publish the new ESL,” he explained.
School bus Wi-Fi is the first phase of Learning Without Limits. A second phase would allow E-Rate funding to be used by libraries, school libraries, and schools so patrons or students can check out Wi-Fi hotspots similar to how they check out books and other materials. The third phase would be a pilot program to support cybersecurity and advanced firewall-related services for eligible K-12 schools and libraries. Both need to be added to the FCC Open Meeting Agenda and require rulemaking before they can be implemented.