Federal Communications Commission Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said she is formally asking her colleagues to support school bus Wi-Fi hotspots as an eligible project under the schools and library E-rate program.
In a speech at the American Library Association’s annual conference on Friday, Rosenworcel said updating the E-Rate internet connectivity funding program to include school bus Wi-Fi is a long-term solution to the short-term Emergency Connectivity Fund that ran out last year. She first championed adding school bus Wi-Fi in a proposal last May. But nothing came of it until last week.
The E-Rate 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 so they can have basic internet connections. Over the years, the FCC has updated it to not only connect libraries and schools but to cover services like installing Wi-Fi hotspots throughout school buildings. However, school buses despite their status as extensions of the classroom have never been included under the same umbrella, and school transportation remains left out of the funding pool.
“It is time for an E-Rate program that supports students and library patrons wherever they are. Call it Learning Without Limits,” Rosenworcel said at last week’s conference.
She added that her first order of business this week was to ask her fellow commissioners at the FCC to join her in an updated ruling to allow E-Rate support to be used for Wi-Fi connections on school buses.
“We already know this can work because dozens of school districts used the Emergency Connectivity Fund to make this happen,” she continued. “This could make a big difference in rural areas, where students spend long hours on school buses just to get to class and home again. We can turn ride time into connected time for homework. We can take E-Rate policies from two decades ago that supported mobile phones on these buses and modernize them so we have Wi-Fi on wheels—and students can Learn Without Limits.”
Rosenworcel also said this week she will share a new proposal to modernize E-Rate.
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There have been several failed attempts in Congress to extend the E-Rate funding to school bus Wi-Fi programs. However, the industry saw some hope when Congress created the Emergency Connectivity Fund, in response to the pandemic, to help meet the connectivity demands of libraries of schools. The program allowed for funding the devices and installation of Wi-Fi hotspots on school buses.
Rosenworcel noted during her speech the importance of libraries being able to loan out Wi-Fi hotspots, so that patrons and kids can stay connected. “What the Emergency Connectivity Fund taught us is that when libraries around the country, like in Harris County, Texas, were able to loan out Wi-Fi hotspots to their patrons, they helped their communities stay connected,” she said. “Those connections mattered during the pandemic. But they also matter post-pandemic. Because we know like never before that high-speed internet access is essential for everyone to have a fair shot at success. And we know that when we are all connected we can expand access to information and opportunity for all.”
Proposed changes to the E-Rate program would require a full vote of the Commission, and the text of the E-rate related items will be released upon their adoption.