HENRICO, V.A. – U.S. Representative Abigail Spanberger today is leading an effort calling on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to take steps to expand high-speed internet access for students facing school closures in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Across the United States, approximately 12 million students lack reliable broadband connectivity in their homes, and as of 2019, 27 percent of rural residents do not have reliable access to high-speed broadband internet. This limits K-12 students’ ability to complete assignments, hinders the efficacy of online-based learning programs, and creates what experts commonly refer to as the “homework gap.”
In response to concerns about a lack of high-speed internet, Spanberger led a letter with 52 of her colleagues to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai urging the FCC to use its broad emergency powers to temporarily waive relevant E-rate program rules. In making this change, the FCC would allow rural schools in Central Virginia and across the country to provide home wireless service to existing school devices and hotspots for students who lack internet access at home.
“We urge you to temporarily waive relevant E-rate program rules and allow its beneficiaries to utilize universal service funding to provide one-time discounts for home wireless service to existing school devices and hotspots for students who lack internet access at home,” said Spanberger and her colleagues. “We urge that the FCC take immediate steps to ensure that all students have adequate home access to the internet should their schools close in response to the coronavirus pandemic.”
Specifically, the letter also calls on the FCC to consider making as much of the approximately $2 billion in funding for the E-Rate program available for these purposes.
Spanberger led the letter alongside U.S. Representatives Rodney Davis (R-IL-13) and Stacey E. Plaskett (D-USVI-AL). This effort follows a similar effort led by U.S. Senators Ed Markey (D-MA), Michael Bennet (D-CO), and Brian Schatz (D-HI), who along with thirteen of their colleagues sent a letter last week to the FCC.
Click here to read the full letter. The full letter text is also below.
Dear Chairman Pai,
As the coronavirus pandemic continues to impact our nation and many of our nation’s schools are forced to close, it is of vital importance that students be able to access the resources needed to learn remotely. Yet, across the United States, nearly 12 million students lack reliable home access to broadband connectivity. Across the United States, lack of access to broadband connectivity continues to impact large numbers of families and students. As of 2019, 27% of rural residents do not have access to broadband. This limits K-12 students’ ability to complete assignments after school and creates what is commonly referred to as the “homework gap.”
During the current health crisis, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended that if schools are dismissed, schools should consider implementing e-learning programs, including digital and distance learning options like online lessons – options that often require reliable access to broadband connectivity. The CDC also urges schools to determine how to deal with students who potentially lack Internet connectivity at home. Currently, many students who lack access to broadband at home complete their out of school assignments at public places with connectivity, such as restaurants or local businesses. However, CDC guidance also directs schools to discourage students from gathering in restaurants or shopping malls – presenting a further challenge to students who do not have broadband access in the home.
The success of our students and the opportunities afforded to them should not be based on where they live. It is especially important that during a time of public health crisis, we take steps to ensure that all students can learn from home and that parents do not feel pressured to expose their children to contagions so that they can access public wifi to complete their schoolwork. While permanently addressing this digital divide caused by a lack of broadband access will take time and broad investments in infrastructure, the FCC can take steps to mitigate these impacts today.
The FCC should utilize its broad emergency powers to temporarily waive relevant E-rate program rules to allow schools to receive funding to enable the provision of home broadband internet access service, as well as wi-fi hotpots, modems, routers, and connected devices, for students who lack internet access at home. We urge that the FCC take immediate steps to remedy to ensure that all students have adequate home access to internet should their schools close in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The E-Rate program was established in 1997 to help schools and libraries gain affordable access to the internet through discounts ranging from 20-90% on telecommunication and internet service-related technologies. While historically the program has not been utilized for expanding home internet access for students, we urge the FCC to consider taking action to allow one-time discounts for schools seeking to loan equipment to students who do not have internet at home, as well as those trying to equip school-distributed devices with Wi-Fi capability that can be lent out while physical classes are on hold. The FCC should consider making as much of the approximately $2 billion in funding still available this year for the E-Rate program available for these purposes. In addition, we request that you make it clear to state and local institutions that undertaking any similar measures during this crisis will not affect their future E-rate eligibility.
Student success should not be determined by zip code, and at a time when schools need to be focusing on keeping their children safe, families shouldn’t be forced to worry about how their children will be able to keep up with their peers because of a lack of access to broadband. Temporarily changing E-rate rules to allow financial support for home internet access would be of immense help to schools, students, and families at this time.
Thank you for your attention to this important matter.
Spanberger’s letter builds on her efforts to address high-speed internet issues facing Central Virginia students amid the coronavirus pandemic. Last week, she led a push calling for strengthened U.S. Department of Education guidance to students, parents, and educators in rural areas as schools close in response to the coronavirus.