The coronavirus pandemic has affected millions of people including students and internet service providers. Governments had no choice but to opt for remote learning to prevent the further spread of the virus. In this generation, we would assume that most parts of the world, especially in the United States, would have reliable internet connections.
Unfortunately, the digital divide is worse than anyone has ever imagined. This challenging time for the students who do not have the financial capacity to afford decent internet service or those who live in areas with poor internet infrastructure is what the Biden Administration is trying to resolve. Added to that, the surge of internet usage in every household left the internet service providers struggling to keep up.
President Joe Biden’s newly appointed acting chairwoman, Federal Communications Commission Jessica Rosenworcel, is one of the few officials that are stepping up to provide a reliable and secure internet connection to the students during this pandemic. With Rosenworcel’s new position, she could use her emergency powers to address online learning inequities.
According to what Rosenworcel mentioned before Congress, this is a crisis the FCC can help solve. She then mentioned the E-Rate program that underwent trials in the past. By providing tech devices and hotspots using federal funding sources, they may be able to provide relief to struggling students. The Federal Schools and Libraries Program or E-Rate, established in 1996, spends at least $4.15 billion to help the public schools connect to the internet.
In 2014, this same program was modernized under reforms led by FCC Chair Tom Wheeler. The modernized program aimed to provide more schools high-speed fiber internet. Unfortunately, former FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai was against this effort due to financial irresponsibility and lack of control fraud, and abuse. Just before Wheeler stepped down as chairman, a report was published regarding the early results of the E-Rate modernization performance.
The report has shown that in 2015, almost 50,000 libraries and schools were able to receive Wi-Fi support compared to zero in 2013 and 2014. It shows that the E-Rate’s supposed approach to Wi-Fi delivers a positive impact to these educational institutions. However, Ajit Pai was appointed by former President Donald Trump as Wheeler’s successor. With strong opposition to these modernization efforts, Pai disregarded the report containing the detailed successes of the E-Rate reforms and issued an order stating that there is no going forward with the said matter.
Even though the reforms were able to show good results, Pai did not blink an eye turning it down. It is safe to say that this modernization was vital in providing these students who are lacking internet resources. A distinguished restriction on the E-Rate program declares that federal funding can only be used for internet services in libraries and classrooms. With the current situation, students will not be able to use these services in the comfort of their own homes.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, education advocations and Democrats in Congress including Rosenworcel asked Ajit Pai to use his emergency powers to temporarily revoke the E-Rate restriction so students can continue with virtual learning at their houses. It’s worth noticing that Ajit Pai, former republican commissioner of the FCC. Headed by Senator Ed Markey, 18 Senate Democrats also urged Pai, through a letter, to use his emergency powers as well. Unfortunately, Pai responded that he cannot do anything about it.
In September, an emergency waiver was submitted to the FCC by Colorado Attorney General Philip Weiser. He requested the FCC for the E-Rate funds to be used for public school students during the pandemic. He was then supported by Massachusett’s Telecommunications and cable commissioner Karen Charles Peterson and others.
Now Vice President Kamala Harris was one of the senators that signed the letter encouraging Pai to use his emergency powers to lift the restrictions. Last year, an estimated $3 billion was supposed to be added to Congress’s relief bill for E-Rate’s emergency funding. Unfortunately, it was omitted at the last minute.
According to Markey, he is delighted because, with the new leadership, FCC is likely to provide the students with tech devices and internet connection. He also mentioned that former Chairman Pai and the rest of the Trump administration just refused to provide help to the students in need even if FCC always had the power to use the E-Rate program.
With Rosenworcel as the acting chair for the FCC, there are still high hopes for the modernization of the E-Rate program. Both President Biden and Vice President Harris give their utmost attention to addressing the digital divide, especially during this pandemic. It is unfortunate that the students have to suffer because they are not given enough support to continue their studies. It may be a lengthy process, but no student should ever experience this in the future, especially during a difficult time like this.