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Expand E-Rate Program to Households: Former Head of National Telecommunication and Information Administration

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Screenshot from the INCOMPAS policy summit

February 8, 2021—The former head of the National Telecommunications Infrastructure Administration is recommending the government expand the E-Rate subsidy program, which provides discounts to access the internet, to households.

The current version of the legislation only allows for the E-Rate program, a product of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, to be applied to libraries and schools. However, because the pandemic has forced kids who would otherwise access the internet at school or the library to stay home, it should be modified to reflect that, said Larry Irving, CEO of the Irving Information Group.

Widely credited with coining the term “digital divide,” Irving identified certain groups that were most at risk for falling behind on broadband access. These groups included rural communities, low-income families, single parents, the elderly, and those who speak English as a second language.

Irving said he is a firm believer in the E-Rate program and said he would propose broadening its scope. He pointed out that when the E-Rate was first established as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 there were people opposed to extending it to cover households.

“I thought they were wrong then, and I think the interpretation of the last four to six years—that you couldn’t extend the E-Rate [to homes], particularly over the last 12 to 18 months—is misguided.” Irving notes that even under normal circumstances children without broadband access are disadvantaged, but the COVID-19 Pandemic has only broadened the divide.

“The reality is that we’ve lost a year of childrens’ lives.” Irving stated that for many children their only access to the internet was through school, and now that the pandemic has many students attending classes from home over the internet, children are simply going without class.

Under the current reading of the E-Rate, Irving is not certain it could cover housing, but he indicated that this could be changed. He asserted that this is not a partisan issue: all politicians should want their state’s children to be educated and in school.

“We need to bring that nonpartisan spirit of cooperation back during the pandemic,” Irving continued, “Let’s figure out how to get this done.”

Mignon Clyburn, former acting chairwoman and commissioner of the FCC, shared Irving’s sentiments. “I say be big and be bold and connect these children—this may be the only chance they have to catch up.”

Clyburn said the divide in broadband accessibility has been allowed to exist because the protections that should cover all communities disproportionately favor some, while leaving others to struggle. She said this will only be remedied through new and innovative strategies designed to consider a number of metrics .

Clyburn conceded that this will not be an inexpensive process, but she insisted that it is a necessary one.

“We need to really take the approach that this is an investment, not a budgetary catastrophe.”

Reporter Ben Kahn is a graduate of University of Baltimore and the National Journalism Center. His work has appeared in Broadband Breakfast, Washington Jewish Week, and The Center Square, among other publications. He primarily covers Big Tech and spectrum policy.

Education

Coalition Says FCC E-rate Portal Proposal Could Create More Problems

Industry officials say the commission’s approach to E-rate competition would burden applicants.

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John Windhausen Jr., executive director of the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition

WASHINGTON, December 21, 2021 – The executive director of a broadband coalition for anchor institutions said the Federal Communications Commission’s proposal to force providers to bid for school and library services through a new portal will burden those applicants.

The agency proposed Thursday to force service providers to submit applications through a bidding portal overseen by the Universal Service Administrative Company, which administers the E-rate program that provides broadband subsidies to schools and libraries. The current approach is that libraries and schools announce they are seeking services and service providers would apply directly to those institutions.

By giving USAC the ability to see service provider applications before they go to the institutions, the agency said this would eliminate at least some forms of abuse or fraud, including participants who may misrepresent their certification or circumvent competitive-bidding rules.

But John Windhausen, executive director of the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition, said that while he applauds the effort to listen to consumer needs, the portal’s one-size-fits-all approach would ultimately burden E-rate applicants and service providers.

He also claimed that there is not enough evidence to show that a new portal is needed and that it “would add a lot more federal bureaucracy on a program that is running pretty well right now.

“You would have federal employees at USAC trying to make determinations about what’s…in the best interests of the schools or libraries,” said Windhausen, “And we don’t think they’re really qualified to do that.”

Windhausen also sees potential conflict between the new bidding portal and some state laws already governing E-rate bidding. In a scenario in which state law and FCC policy conflict, it is not clear which policy would take precedence.

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Education

FCC Commits Another $603 Million in Emergency Connectivity Fund Money

The agency has now committed $3.8 billion from the $7.17-billion program.

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FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel

WASHINGTON, December 20, 2021 – The Federal Communications Commission’s latest round of Emergency Connectivity Fund money will disburse $603 million to connect over 1.4 million students in all 50 states, the agency said Monday.

The FCC said it has now committed $3.8 billion of the $7.17-billion program, which provides funding for schools and libraries to buy laptops, tablets, WiFi hotspots, modems, routers and connectivity to help students stay connected off school premises. The money comes as a new Covid-19 variant sweeps the nation again, putting face-to-face interactions at risk once again.

The agency also said Monday that it has allocated an additional $367 million in its first commitment and nearly $236 million in the second commitment.

The agency in October said that previous rounds had committed $2.63 billion from the fund since its launch in June.

The total amount committed to go to support 9,000 schools, 760 libraries, and 100 consortia for nearly 8.3 million connected devices and over 4.4 million broadband connections, the agency said in a Monday release.

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Education

Texas High School Students Enter the Fight for Better Connectivity

Students in a Houston-area school district hosted a panel on connecting schools and libraries as part of a national event on bridging the digital divide.

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John Windhausen Jr., founder and executive director of the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition

WASHINGTON, December 1, 2021 – Generation Z students are making their mark at a Houston-area school district by adding broadband access to the list of issues they are actively working on.

The high school students in the Fort Bend Independent School District organized a panel conversation on internet access in education as part of Connected Nation’s national event titled “20 Years of Connecting the Nation,” and were able to host some high-profile guests in the world of telecommunications.

The November 17 panel included John Windhausen Jr., founder and executive director of the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition, Chris Martinez, division director of information technology for the Harris County Public Library, Heather Gate, vice president of digital inclusion for Connected Nation, and Meredith Watassek, director of career and technical education for Fort Bend ISD.

Nine percent of residents in Harris County, where Houston is located, reports that they do not have a connected device at home and 18 percent say they do not have access to an internet connection. These gaps in access are the focus of the panelists’ digital equity efforts.

With Windhausen and Martinez present on the panel, a key point of discussion was the importance of helping libraries to act as anchor institutions – institutions which help enable universal broadband access.

Watassek pointed out that she has been helping oversee distance learning in Fort Bend ISD for six years, starting such a program to enable teachers to teach students in several of the district’s buildings without having to drive to each one, and has seen that with time and learned experience it is possible to work through distance learning logistical issues that school districts around the nation are currently facing.

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