Sens. Renew Call For Internet Learning In COVID-19 Funding

By Kelcee Griffis
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Law360 (April 2, 2020, 4:39 PM EDT) -- A coalition of Democratic senators expressed disappointment Thursday that the $2 trillion coronavirus rescue package failed to include direct funding for distance learning, telling congressional leadership that the next bill must include $2 billion for an FCC program focused on schools and libraries.

Although the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act that was enacted last week did include some funding for "telemedicine and distance learning services in rural areas" as well as state grants to support web-connected devices, the 35 senators said the Federal Communications Commission's schools and libraries subsidy fund is the most direct way to get internet-connected devices distributed quickly.

"We believe providing funds to the E-Rate program is the best way to help students continue their education at home," the senators said in a letter to House and Senate leaders. 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."

Experts estimate that roughly 12 million school-aged children lack reliable internet access and need a mobile connection to complete coursework; 18 million households are said to lack any kind of broadband connection, including mobile internet. Current E-Rate rules generally subsidize on-campus connections, so the FCC would have to lift restrictions or receive a congressional mandate to allow schools and libraries to purchase take-home devices with federal funds.

The Thursday letter builds upon calls from advocacy groups for the federal government to assist school districts with sourcing and purchasing ever-scarce WiFi hotspots and mobile-connected laptops. It also echoes a March 22 letter headlined by Sens. Ed Markey, D-Mass., Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and Michael Bennet, D-Colo., that asked for an E-Rate allocation in the CARES Act.

"We request that the next coronavirus relief package include at least $2 billion in E-Rate funds for schools and libraries to provide Wi-Fi hotspots or other devices with Wi-Fi capability to students without adequate connectivity at their home," the senators reiterated in their Thursday letter.

The call for more E-Rate funding comes on the heels of House Democrats' Wednesday announcement of a fourth-phase coronavirus rescue package, which proposes $86 billion for broadband infrastructure and $12 billion to support next-generation 911 services. The allocations follow the contours of a $760 billion infrastructure plan that House leaders first rolled out in January. 

--Editing by Bruce Goldman.

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