Schools around the country are closing, and while some universities are able to switch to online classes, that's not really an option for K-12 students, many of whom lack the necessary equipment or connection at home to do so. Legislators and the FCC are hoping to fix at least part of the problem with an emergency distribution of Wi-Fi hotspots to needy students.
In a letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a group of Democratic and Independent lawmakers led by Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) urged the agency to use funds earmarked for education to immediately help kids who lack the connectivity they need.
"The coronavirus pandemic has shone a bright light on the 'homework gap' experienced by 12 million students in this country who do not have internet access at home and are unable to complete their homework," they write. "We believe that the FCC can use its emergency powers... to provide home wireless service to existing school devices and hotspots for students who lack internet access at home."
Many schools and libraries have devices like Wi-Fi hotspots and other internet-enabled devices available for loan or rental, but the demand and attendant costs could be very high if they hand them out for use as students' main source of connectivity. The suggestion by Markey and the others is to cover these costs to get these resources distributed as quickly and simply as possible.
The issue is that the funds to do so are locked up in what's called the E-Rate program, which is an internet connection subsidy meted out to schools and libraries, and isn't really intended for this kind of short-term use. But as the letter says, the legislators believe it is within the FCC's powers to override the day-to-day E-Rate rules and dedicate some of the $2 billion left in its budget to this purpose.
They're not just speculating wildly, either — many of these senators are part of the FCC's oversight committee, and Sen. Markey is actually the person who created the E-Rate program to begin with back in the '90s. With this kind of assurance, the FCC may find itself with a free hand to address the crisis in the way they describe.
"This swift, immediate action would help ensure that all students can remotely continue their education during the current public health emergency," the group writes. "We call on you to use the FCC’s emergency powers to narrow the homework gap during this crisis, and we look forward to finding a long-term solution when the coronavirus subsides."
Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel supports the approach, tweeting earlier today that "The FCC can fix this #homeworkgap with a program for schools to loan out wifi hotspots. It needs to do it now."
For 30 million students school is closing for the #coronavirus. Millions are heading to class online. But millions have no internet at home. The FCC can fix this #homeworkgap with a program for schools to loan out wifi hotspots. It needs to do it now. https://t.co/h8gr3xBJCY
— Jessica Rosenworcel (@JRosenworcel) March 16, 2020
The letter was co-signed by Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Jack Reed (D-RI), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), Patty Murray (D-WA), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Angus S. King, Jr. (I-ME) and Margaret Wood Hassan (D-NH).