The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved a declaratory rule on Thursday that makes final a proposal to expand the E-Rate program to fund Wi-Fi on school buses. The Commission approved the rule on a 3-2 party line vote.
The rule clarifies that under the existing E-Rate program, providing Wi-Fi on school buses serves an “educational purpose,” making the action allowable to fund under the program. During the pandemic, schools have been able to provide this service on buses through a temporary program, the Emergency Connectivity Fund, which is set to expire next year. The change to the E-Rate program will go into effect for the 2024 funding year.
Advocates for the program, as well as Democrats on the Commission, have been pushing for the change to help close the homework gap, particularly for rural students who have extended time on the school bus each day and may not have reliable internet access at home. Opponents, however, including the two Republican members of the Commission and Republican lawmakers, say that the action is not allowable under the E-Rate program statute and that it is duplicative of other federal programs. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) introduced legislation this week in response to the FCC ruling that would place restrictions on E-Rate funding, including requiring schools receiving funds to block social media access on devices and networks that are paid for with E-Rate funds.
In a statement issued after the ruling, FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said that “we need to make sure E-Rate meets the moment and keeps doing good” and that the change will “help close the Homework Gap and get more kids connected for school.”