Why E-rate Should Fund Home Broadband During COVID-19 April 14, 2020
By John Windhausen Jr., executive director, SHLB Coalition
You can’t say they haven’t tried. In 2015, Boulder Valley School District (BVSD) provided wireless internet to nearby public housing residents, but the Federal Communications Commission told it to stop. BVSD responded with a Petition in 2016 asking the FCC to waive the E-rate restrictions so that it could continue its service, but the FCC never ruled. So, earlier this year, BVSD entered a public-private partnership agreement to extend wireless broadband from the school buildings to low-income students, bypassing E-rate altogether.
Most school districts are not as fortunate - they can give away tablets, but they simply do not have the resources to pay for families’ broadband service at home. The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed virtually everything online, including school, work, government services, and healthcare access. Yet, at least one school district prohibited online instruction because some of their students cannot afford Internet access. With anchor institutions across the country closing their physical doors for public safety, schools are struggling to keep their digital doors open to serve their communities.
The lack of affordable residential broadband reflects a failure of U.S. broadband policy. The National Broadband Plan of 2010 called for ubiquitous, affordable, high-speed broadband for all by the year 2020. Depending on which measure you use, the U.S. has fallen short by 10% to 50%. We are now suffering the consequences – residential broadband is often slow, expensive, and not universally available. As a result, school children everywhere cannot engage in online education, and health clinics do not have sufficient telemedicine services to keep everyone healthy. The U.S. needs to recalibrate its rules and funding programs to ensure that everyone in America has affordable, high-speed broadband.
One sure step toward that goal is to allow schools and libraries to extend their networks to the home. The E-rate program subsidizes broadband on the school or library campus, but does not allow the service to extend off-campus. BVSD’s 2016 petition asked the FCC to waive the E-rate cost allocation rule to empower BVSD – and theoretically, any other school or library – to deploy broadband to student homes. Microsoft and several school districts in Virginia filed a similar petition. These Petitions would not have cost the E-rate program a dime, and that’s why SHLB supported them in 2016. Yet they were put on the backburner. Just last month, we proposed again that the FCC grant these petitions to expedite connectivity in the face of COVID-19.
But even these petitions are not enough. The SHLB Coalition has long advocated for deploying broadband “to and through” anchor institutions to the surrounding community. Schools and libraries have E-rate built networks that are funded by the public, so they should be shared with the public. With forward-looking policies, a broadband connection to an anchor can provide enough bandwidth to fulfill the needs of the entire community as well as the institution. In fact, BVSD is now allowing a private sector company to deploy wireless antennas on the school rooftops to provide free service to low-income residential consumers. They can do so because they are not using E-rate funding. But why should E-rate be a barrier to these connections? E-rate ought to encourage, not discourage, creative solutions that can allow schools and libraries to forge public-private partnerships to bring broadband to everyone. And if E-rate funding is needed to promote these solutions, so be it.
Congress is now looking at whether to modernize the E-rate program to do just that. Eighteen U.S. Senate Democrats, a coalition of 7,664 education leaders, and numerous public interest groups have written that the E-rate program should pay for residential broadband connections, since home is where the students are. These supporters identify E-rate as a solution for good reason – E-rate has a long track record of success and bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. Congress can also override whatever E-rate rules stand in the way.
Even if Congress does not act, however, the FCC has great flexibility under the existing statutory language to use E-rate to pay for residential access. The E-rate statutory language dictates that E-rate funding must be used for “educational purposes”, which, as New America’s Open Technology Institute paper points out, gives the FCC broad legal authority to promote broadband to the home when used for education.
On occasion, the FCC itself has taken a more flexible approach to determining what E-rate can and cannot fund. The actions it took in the 2010 E-rate Sixth Report and Order are good examples. The Commission permitted E-rate recipients to welcome community use of their internet connection during non-operating hours. It also established the E-rate Deployed Ubiquitously (EDU) 2011 program, a trial to explore E-rate funding for connectivity off the premises of a school or library. In fact, the General Accounting Office issued a paper last year encouraging the FCC to use E-rate to develop off-campus wireless services.
In its response to COVID-19, the FCC has already taken some much-needed steps to open up E-rate funded services. It temporarily waived the gift rule, and it confirmed that schools and libraries could leave E-rate funded Wi-Fi on for community use on campus even when the building is closed. The FCC can and should go further during this extraordinary time – the FCC should allow E-rate funding to be used by schools and libraries to extend their connections outward and off-campus at least during this national crisis, and perhaps beyond.
FCC Chairman Pai has consistently reiterated that his “top priority is to close the digital divide.” The homework gap impacts nearly 7 million students, making up a significant portion of the estimated 21.3 million people without broadband at home. This is a sizable but solvable problem. With sufficient E-rate funding, schools and libraries could extend their broadband networks to get these students online, as well as millions of library patrons. By taking one small step to permit E-rate funds to connect homes, the FCC could take a giant leap to advance its top priority and fulfill its universal service mandate.
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to an unprecedented time, calling for bold actions to accelerate efforts to close the digital divide. The numerous requests that the FCC allow E-rate to fund home connectivity for students and library patients aren’t even that bold. We’re asking the FCC to do something it’s been building to since 2010. Libraries and school districts want to enable home broadband access for their unconnected students and patrons. BVSD is proof of that, as are the countless schools and libraries desperately trying to get their constituents connectivity solutions. The restrictions on E-rate cripple their efforts. On behalf of these schools and libraries, as well as their students and patrons, SHLB respectfully urges the FCC: Take the necessary steps to make E-rate funding an invaluable tool for connecting students during this physically disconnected time.