A proposal under consideration by the FCC would allow schools and libraries to use E-Rate funding for Wi-Fi hotspots and wireless Internet services for off-premises use by students, school staff and library patrons.

The E-Rate program, which was established in 1996, currently subsidizes telecommunications and Internet access for use within schools and libraries. The proposal, which the FCC will vote on next month, is designed to help blunt the impact of the ending of the Affordable Connectivity Program, which terminated last month.

“It should be the standard practice that students or anyone who can’t afford internet at home can check out a Wi-Fi hotspot from their local library,” FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in a press release. “This update is how we’ll help close the Homework Gap and support folks on the wrong side of the digital divide so they can fully participate in modern civic and commercial life.”

If adopted, the Report and Order would:

  • Allow schools and libraries to use E-Rate funding to loan out Wi-Fi hotspots and support high-speed internet access for students, school staff, and library patrons in both rural and urban parts of the country.
  • Adopt a budget mechanism that sets a limit on the amount of support that an applicant can request for Wi-Fi hotspots and services over a three-year period.  In the event that demand for E-Rate support exceeds available funding in a given funding year, eligible off-premises equipment and service requests will be funded after eligible on-premises category one and category two equipment and service requests.
  • Adopt numerous safeguards to protect the integrity of the E-Rate program, including measures to ensure the supported Wi-Fi hotspots and services are in use, are used for educational purposes, are not funded through other sources, and are properly documented for auditing purposes.
  • Require compliance with the Children’s Internet Protection Act.

While readers might expect associations such as NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association and ACA Connects to be in favor of the proposal, both associations have expressed concerns about the idea. Concerns include potential duplication with other programs and conflicts with existing rules limiting installations to school buildings.

The American Library Association has expressed support for the change.

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