HomeTechnologyTech Backs E-Rate for School Bus Wi-Fi Despite Political Opposition

Tech Backs E-Rate for School Bus Wi-Fi Despite Political Opposition

Despite the opposition of at least two leading Republican lawmakers in Congress, the Federal Communication Commission appears to be moving forward with a proposal to extend the E-Rate funding program for internet equipment in school buildings and libraries to school buses.

The Consortium of School Netorking (CoSN), the leading association for school technology professionals, for one supports the initiative and said FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel has full authority under the 1996 Telecommunications Act to drive the initiative, despite claims to the contrary made by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, the chair of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas in a July 31 letter.

They are urging Rosenworcel shelve her Learning Without Limits proposal, arguing that Congress authorized the creation of E-Rate only to provide internet to physical buildings. Further, the letter claims E-Rate is prone to abuse and extending the program to school bus Wi-Fi equipment expands the congressional definition of services to fund costly  “overbuilding,” which amounts to illegal competition with local broadband providers.

The letter came just weeks after Rosenworcel called on her FCC colleagues to pass Learning Without Limits during a June speech at the American Library Association’s annual conference. She first announced the declaratory ruling last summer to help close the homework gap exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The proposal also calls for a cybersecurity pilot.

FCC opened the proposal to public comment on the feasibility of adding school bus Wi-Fi to the E-Rate eligible services, which resulted in the McMorris Rodgers-Cruz letter. The declaratory ruling requires commission approval before the Universal Services Program could begin distributing money annually for hotspot equipment.

Keith Krueger, the chief executive officer of CoSN, told School Transportation News that Rosenworcel has statutory approval to implement Learning Without Limits.

“She with the agreement of the commission can do that and we hope that she will. We think there [are] a lot of good reasons,” he said, adding that school buses are extensions of the classroom, which along with libraries already are eligible for E-Rate funding to provide internet services. “School buses are an extension of the classroom. We already provide Wi-Fi in cafeterias and other places for study halls and where students do their homework. Why wouldn’t we allow it on a school-authorized moving classroom called the bus? It just makes sense.”

He added that Learning Without Limits is vital especially for students living in rural areas.

“The time that students spend for their regular commute, but also for sporting events, and things like that can be hours of time over the week. There’s a real instructional need for allowing kids to [connect to school bus Wi-Fi hotspots],” he said. “The research shows behavioral problems are lessened or seem to be lessened when Wi-Fi is there. Kids are focused on screen, not behavioral fights with the kids around them. … Why wouldn’t we for productivity purposes allow students to do something meaningful and substantive, you know, get their homework done?”

In her response to McMorris Rodgers and Cruz dated Aug. 14, Rosenworcel pointed out that Congress has recognized technology is ever-evolving. Congress also never defined what classrooms are.

“Congress also clearly provided the commission with the flexibility to update the E-Rate program to meet these changing technological needs, by specifically giving the Commission the authority to ‘designate additional services’ to benefit schools and libraries in Section 254(c)(3) of the Communications Act,” she writes. “This is critical because these sections provide authority for the Commission to modernize the program as technology changes and the needs of schools and libraries evolve. … Congress recognized from the start that programs authorized under Section 254 would require periodic updates, and to do otherwise would freeze such programs in 1996 when these provisions were added to the statute.”

Rosenworcel also says the notice is consistent with FCC’s exercise of authority during the Trump administration of the Connected Care Pilot program, which concluded that support for patients’ home broadband connections expanded health care providers’ ability to serve more patients through the program, thus enhancing eligible health care providers’ access to advanced telecommunications and information services.

“Consistent with the approach in the Connected Care pilot, the notice seeks comment on whether providing off-premises connectivity to students, school staff and library patrons who lack access similarly enhances eligible schools’ and libraries’ access to advanced telecommunications and information services, as authorized pursuant to Section 254(h)(2)(A) of the Communications Act,” she responds.

Additionally, Rosenworcel writes that Learning Without Limits is consistent with precedent dating back more than 25 years, which concluded that both the E-Rate and Rural Health Care programs in Section 254 may include support for equipment necessary to facilitate access to internet service.

McMorris Rodgers and Cruz also expressed concerns about fraud. In February, seven people — four equipment vendors, two educational consultants, and one official of a religious school in Rockland County, New York — were sentenced after being convicted for roles they played in defrauding E-Rate of over $14 million from 2010-2016.

Krueger said there will always be some misuse of federal programs, but he said accusations of widespread abuse, fraud and waste are “pretty broad.”

Rosenworcel agrees that FCC must protect the E-Rate program and notes “ongoing proceeding examining efforts to strengthen the program in order to ensure its continued integrity and success.”

As for claims about potential duplicative spending, she writes that Section 254(h)(2)(A) of the Telecommunications Act directs FCC to establish rules only to the extent that they are “economically reasonable.”

“The draft notice does not seek comment on providing E-Rate support for broadband buildout to homes,” she continues. “Rather, the draft Notice is limited to seeking comment on whether E-Rate funds should support existing wireless services and the Wi-Fi hotspots needed to deliver such services for remote learning. It is also important to note that the Notice proposes to fund these services within the program’s current spending cap and does not seek comment on modifying the program’s cap.”

Krueger commented there has long been a concern about overbuilding within the communications industry, but he said he does not see the relevance regarding school bus Wi-Fi.

“Putting Wi-Fi in buses is not really competition because you’re using the cellular network,” he added.

Opponents like parentadvocates.org, however, accuse schools and IT providers of circumventing bid requirements, charging E-Rate for equipment that does not qualify, and asking for millions of dollars worth of equipment that schools did not need.

The FCC has yet to publish an agenda on Learning Without Limits for a future board meeting. At this report, an FCC representative had yet to respond to an STN question asking when that might occur. The next scheduled commission meeting is Sept. 21, but E-Rate is not listed on that agenda.

Related: Closing the Digital Divide – With School Bus Wi-Fi Hotspots?
Related: Emergency Connectivity Fund Requests Exceed Remaining Balance of Program
Related: Are Students Using School Bus Wi-Fi?
Related: Districts Realize Unintended Benefits of Installing Wi-Fi on the School Bus

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