In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, a group of 16 senators pushed Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai to temporarily allow schools to use the E-Rate program funding to provide Wi-Fi hotspots or devices with Wi-Fi capability to students who lack internet access at home.

“This action would help ensure that all students can remotely continue their education during the current public health emergency,” the senators explained in a statement. “The coronavirus pandemic is shining a bright light on the so-called ‘homework gap’ experienced by 12 million students in this country.”

The March 16 letter was signed by Sens. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., Michael Bennet, D-Colo., Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., Tammy Baldwin, D-Ill., Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., Jack Reed, D-R.I., Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., Patty Murray, D-Wash., Mazie Hirono, D- Hawaii, Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Angus S. King, Jr., I-Maine, and Maggie Hassan, D-N.H.

Funding for the E-rate program is capped at $4 billion a year and the FCC has already allocated roughly $2 billion for 2020. In the letter, the senators say they believe that the FCC can use its emergency powers to “temporarily waive relevant E-rate program rules and allow its beneficiaries to utilize universal service funding to provide home wireless service to existing school devices and hotspots for students who lack internet access at home.” They also urged the FCC to “make it clear to state and local institutions that undertaking any similar measures during this crisis will not affect their future E-rate eligibility.”

Referencing the homework gap, the senators said that “without FCC action, this existing inequity is likely to be exacerbated by the increasing number of schools that are suspending in-person classes and have transitioned to remote learning over the internet to protect the health of students, faculty, and staff. 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.”

The lawmakers wrote, “The E-Rate program is, and has been for over two decades, an essential source of funding to connect the nation’s schools and libraries to the internet … As the coronavirus pandemic develops, this program offers a solution that may help mitigate the impact on our most vulnerable families.”

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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk's Assistant Copy & Production Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.