E-rate/Schools and Libraries Program
School closures in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak revealed a difficult truth: The digital divide is real, and it is deep. And the tools we have available to bridge it are insufficient. To prioritize where broadband deployment funding can do the most good, we need to know where the gaps in service exist. The second problem is one of access. Too many households simply cannot afford the monthly cost of broadband even if the infrastructure exists to provide it in their homes.
It’s critical that Congress provide funding in the next coronavirus relief bill to assist families that can’t afford internet access. But that will take time that students can’t afford. The government needs to do more to get them online now.
The Senate Commerce Committee vetted the current state of spectrum policy and broadband availability at a July 23 hearing. There was general agreement that rural deployment was a problem and a priority, particularly during a pandemic; that the data on where broadband is and isn't — thus where the money needs to be put, or not — is flawed and needs fixing; and that sharing as well as clearing spectrum was important.
How will students from low-income families connect to the internet to learn from home if they can’t attend school physically this fall? What role can school systems play in ensuring home broadband access for all students, given the budget crisis many districts will be facing next year? The simplest solution would be for the Federal Communications Commission to lift the restrictions barring E-rate recipients from using their networks to extend broadband service into students’ homes.
Federal Communications Commissioner Geoffrey Starks spoke about internet inequality during a USTelecom webinar "The Role of Connectivity in Digital Equity and Inclusion." Commissioner Starks said he uses the term internet inequality rather than the digital divide because beyond the issue of access was the issue of affordability. He said there are millions of Americans who simply can't afford the internet. While the rural digital divide is very important, Commissioner Starks said the lack of connectivity in certain urban areas was a problem he was increasingly fixated on.
Senate Democrats are attempting to add their distance learning E-Rate funding bill to the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Sens. Ed Markey (D-MA), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Maggie Hassan (D-NH), and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) have proposed their Emergency Educational Connections Act as an amendment on the bill. The bill would ensure that all K-12 students have access to "adequate" home broadband connectivity and devices during the COVID-19 pandemic. The bill would clarify that E-rate could be used for equipment and service at "locations other than the school."
On March 19, Sens Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Gary Peters (D-MI), and Jon Tester (D-MT) wrote to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai making the FCC to take immediate action to ensure that all K-12 students in the U.S. have access to the internet so that they can continue learning while schools are closed in response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. On June 22, Chairman Pai wrote back saying, "The FCC aims to enable [the] transition to remote learning.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai says that while the FCC's hands are tied when it comes to applying E-rate schools and libraries funding to remote learning during the pandemic, there are billions of dollars that could already be applied to that purpose Congress has already allocated and the FCC is working on getting educators to spend on education tech. Chairman Pai said he understood the frustration, and had asked Congress to clear away that statutory language impediment in the meantime.
All five Federal Communications Commissioners testified at a Senate Commerce Committee oversight hearing. Commerce Committee Chairman Roger Wicker (R-MS) said the hearing was an opportunity for Commissioners to discuss what more can be done to expand broadband access and digital opportunity for all Americans.
Far too many Americans are cut off from access to affordable high-speed Internet even as more of our core systems go digital. Unchecked, the result will be an America even more unequal than the one we see today. The United States has failed in the equitable delivery of this public good. The disparity will almost certainly lead to further inequity. No American should suffer the indignity of searching for Internet. Starbucks WiFi is not a social safety net.