This article is part of the Future Agenda, a series from Future Tense in which experts suggest specific, forward-looking actions the new Biden administration should implement.
Let’s jump back to 1996 for a moment. We didn’t have Wi-Fi, touch screens, or smartphones. Ariana Grande was 3 years old. Diana, princess of wales, was all over the tabloids. And E-Rate was born.
What, you don’t know E-Rate? It’s the obscure little program run by the Federal Communications Commission that discounts the cost of internet access in schools and libraries. It was one of several landmark programs to emerge from the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which stated that “all schools, classrooms, health care providers, and libraries should, generally, have access to advanced telecommunications services.” At the time, that kind of access consisted almost entirely of computers connecting to an actual line (ethernet cable, phone line, or whatever it might be). And so it seemed reasonable that E-Rate discounts should apply to the costs associated with the line that runs up to the walls of those buildings and the internal lines connected within them.
Today, this notion of lines and physical buildings seems quaint. Not only can huge streams of data be transmitted wirelessly, but the very act of going to schools and libraries has changed. Now students, parents, and library patrons of all ages can log in to their classrooms or browse library stacks from anywhere—if they have internet access.
Which is why E-Rate needs some love and attention right now from the FCC, Congress, and the Biden administration. The program shouldn’t be hobbled by the limitations of 1996 policymakers who couldn’t have imagined the tools and routines that are now part of our hyperconnected lives. One of the first priorities of 2021 should be to enable schools and libraries to use E-Rate to help students and patrons get online from home. To support these extensions is to uphold the program’s founding principles of universal service and access.
The COVID-19 pandemic, which has laid bare how much we all need internet access, has exposed huge disparities in who has broadband access at home—and how much those disparities harm children and families who go without. For example, 74 percent of the largest school districts, according to Ed Week, decided to deliver instruction remotely this fall. Virtual school means that teachers and students must go online to find textbooks and download other learning materials, to join their classrooms via remote videoconferences, and to get reminders about assignments and grades via email and online apps. Yet data from a Common Sense Media report shows that as many as 16 million school children do not have adequate internet access or devices to go to school this way. Thirty-five percent of Native American students, 30 percent of Black students, and 26 percent of Latinx students are in households without adequate connectivity.
In short, if students can’t get online where they live, they are essentially barred from getting an education right now. “It means the classroom remains locked to students,” FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said at a recent New America event. (I work at New America, which is a partner with Slate and Arizona State University in Future Tense.)
Modernizing E-Rate is not a new idea. As a new report from New America’s Open Technology Institute explains, the FCC has updated the program before—such as in 2014, when regulations were modified so schools could use the funding to pay for wireless technology and allow the Wi-Fi signals to extend outside the walls into parking lots and playing fields. But that’s not enough. To keep up with the times, the FCC should consider waivers to allow schools and libraries to use the program to distribute mobile hot spots to families and install Wi-Fi on book mobiles, school buses, and in housing developments.
Prompted by news about these dire gaps in online learning opportunities, a growing number of organizations, including those with ties to the business and industry, are calling on Congress to direct the FCC to make changes to E-Rate. The Business Roundtable, for example, published recommendations on Dec. 8 asking for clarification of E-Rate so that it “can be used to reimburse the costs of internet service for e-learning to support student and teacher connectivity needs for educational purposes during the COVID-19 public health emergency.”
So what is the hold up? For one, Congress can barely figure out how to pass its annual appropriations bills. Although there is a chance that E-Rate changes could come in the final push for COVID-19 relief legislation, relying on lawmakers typically means waiting, and waiting, and waiting. To move more quickly, change could come from within the FCC. But even though education groups and digital inclusion organizations have been pleading with the FCC all year to make these changes, the agency hasn’t budged. Chairman Ajit Pai announced Nov. 30 that off-campus use of E-Rate funds was not allowed because the regulations use the word “classrooms” and that changing eligibility guidelines would take an act of Congress.
Fortunately for E-Rate advocates, Pai also announced that day that he was resigning from the commission in January—leaving a vacancy on the five-person board for the Biden administration to fill. In addition, depending on what party leads the Senate next year and how fast appointments can be confirmed, the next year should bring the appointment of a new FCC chairperson. Rosenworcel, a longtime champion of modernizing E-Rate, is a leading contender for the top spot. As she put it at the New America event earlier this month: “[T]he FCC has more than enough authority to go ahead.” And even before new appointments are confirmed, the commission still has the wherewithal to make changes to E-Rate under emergency orders. It should do so.
Students need help as soon as possible, and an expanded E-Rate could easily get more students online next semester through school and library programs that will otherwise languish for lack of funding. At the moment, for example, E-Rate does not help to reduce the cost of installing Wi-Fi on school buses or buying mobile hot spots to lend to families. But an expanded E-Rate program could. Many schools and libraries with tight budgets (already made tighter by the costs of coping with the coronavirus) cannot afford to pay full price for these technologies and are either forgoing this option or having to make hard choices between neighborhoods instead of ensuring that all students can be served.
One wonky note: If and when E-Rate is extended, the additional discounts and rebates to schools and libraries will have to come from somewhere. But this does not require tapping into funding from the U.S. Department of Education or waiting on appropriations committees in Congress. Instead, the money for this program comes from the Universal Service Fund, which in addition to E-Rate also helps to support internet access for rural communities, health care institutions, and the Lifeline program, which provides low-cost phone and internet access for low-income households. The fund is filled by fees collected from telecommunications companies, which they then pass on to consumers in monthly telephone bills. Guidelines already exist to use these funds in emergency situations. If this pandemic doesn’t qualify, what does?
Taking steps to modernize E-Rate could and should come in the very first days of the Biden administration. Let’s stop getting stuck in a 1996 model of how schools and libraries operate. Students who are struggling to get online deserve better. FCC policies should recognize and support what learning looks like today, not stifle it.