digital divide
FCC waives E-Rate and other requirements; Congress seeks additional funding for student tech
In light of nationwide school closures caused by COVID-19, the Federal Communications Commission has announced waivers to better help local educational agencies make the transition to long-term distance learning by relaxing rural E-rate gift rules and alleviating certain administrative and compliance burdens on schools.

E-rate provides discounts of up to 90 percent to help eligible schools and libraries in the United States obtain affordable telecommunications and internet access. The program is intended to ensure that schools and libraries have access to affordable telecommunications and information services.

On April 1, officials from the FCC’s Wireline Competition Bureau announced that it was extending the service delivery deadline for non-recurring services for funding year 2019 by one year — from Sept. 30, 2020, to Sept. 30, 2021. The latest order also grants schools and libraries an automatic 60-day extension to file requests for review or waiver of decisions by the E-Rate program administrator, the Universal Service Administrative Company and provides applicants and service providers an automatic 120-day extension of the invoice filing deadline. Additionally, all program participants are granted a 30-day extension to respond to certain information requests from USAC.

And, with schools and libraries closed for lengthy periods of time, service providers may not be allowed on campus and may experience significant challenges in meeting the service implementation deadline for special construction. Under commission rules, applicants must complete special construction, such as deploying fiber, and the network must be in use by June 30 of the applicable funding year. For all funding year 2019 applicants, however, the FCC is also extending the deadline by one year, from June 30, 2020, to June 30, 2021.

All of the changes will allow school and district administrators to focus on transitioning to distance learning rather than impending deadlines by which to file paperwork, according to FCC chairman Ajit Pai.

“In light of extended school and library closures, we’re granting an across-the-board, one-year extension of the E-Rate special construction deadline for funding year 2019,” Pai said in a statement. “By providing this proactive relief, we want to ease burdens on schools and libraries to allow them to focus their time and resources on transitioning their students, patrons, teachers and staff to remote learning during this crisis. This is yet another step the FCC is taking to offer help to students and teachers in need — and I look forward to continue working with Congress to fund a Remote Learning Initiative so that every child can continue being educated during the pandemic.”

The announcement followed a separate waiver announced March 18 that waived gift rules until Sept. 30, 2020, to enable service providers to offer, and E-Rate program participants to solicit and accept, improved connections or additional equipment for remote learning during the coronavirus outbreak. That waiver allowed schools and libraries to accept improved capacity, WiFi hotspots, networking gear or other equipment or services to support doctors and patients, teachers and students, and librarians and patrons.

Still, many schools located in low-income and rural areas continue to play catch-up attempting to ensure kids have access to devices at home and internet to connect to. Across the country, 12 million students do not have internet access at home. According to a 2019 report from the Public Policy Institute of California, nearly 16 percent (roughly 945,000) of California’s school-aged children had no internet connection at home in 2017, while 27 percent (about 1.7 million) did not have broadband access.

To help expedite efforts to fill those gaps in access, 35 U.S. senators, including California’s Diane Feinstein and Kamala Harris, strongly urged congressional leaders in an April 2 letter to provide dedicated funds to address this issue in the next COVID-19 emergency relief package so that no child falls behind in their education. Although a $2 billion allocation for broadband access for schools was included in an earlier version of the $2 trillion stimulus bill, such funding was not included in the final package signed by President Donald Trump on March 27.