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FCC: Schools Can Use E-Rate Funds to Cover WiFi on Buses

It will soon be easier for schools to cover the cost of providing Wi-Fi on school buses so that students—particularly those in rural areas with long commutes to and from school—can use the time to study or complete homework.

Starting next year, schools will be allowed to use federal E-rate funding to pay for school bus Wi-Fi, under a change approved Oct. 19 by the Federal Communications Commission.

FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, supported the measure along with the two other Democrats on the five-person commission. Both Republicans on the panel voted against it.

During the debate over the change, Rosenworcel recalled her recent visit to a community in rural Vermont where some students commute an hour each way to school. The district had outfitted its buses with Wi-Fi so that students could use the time to study.

“They decided to turn ride time into connected time for homework. Call it Wi-Fi on wheels,” Rosenworcel said.

Before the district connected its buses, one student without internet at home would rush to the library just before school ended and print out her assignments, web pages for research, anything she might need for homework, a librarian told Rosenworcel.

This student “printed stacks of paper day after day because she had no broadband at home,” Rosenworcel said. “Let’s be clear. This is a kid with extraordinary grit. But it shouldn’t be this hard.”

But Republicans on the commission argued that the change is unnecessary and goes against Congress’ intent when it created the E-rate program explicitly to connect classrooms—not other types of learning spaces.

What’s more, Nathan Simington, one of the Republicans, thinks the change is “wasteful and unlikely to benefit students and teachers,” he said.

“Anyone who’s ever been in a school bus should have a healthy skepticism that most children will, in fact, sit quietly and do homework on their laptops, instead of socializing with the friends on the bus and browsing social media on their phones,” he said.

Education organizations—including the Consortium for School Networking, or CoSN—cheered the move.

“We think it’s a good step forward,” said Keith Krueger, CoSN’s executive director. “It’s logical that we would extend the learning space, just like we do in schools. It’s not just classrooms but cafeterias and study halls where students can do their homework.”

What’s more, he said, research shows having Wi-Fi on board improves student behavior on buses.

Currently, the E-rate program has a spending cap of $4.4 billion, but it has been allocating far less than that. Last year, the program doled out about $2.5 billion, and the year before that, it gave out a little less than $2.1 billion. The lower demand for the funds is due, in part, to changes made to the program in 2014 as well as declining data costs.

Extending E-rate to provide Wi-Fi on buses is part of Rosenworcel’s broader push to provide the technology services that she thinks schools need.

She has also proposed a pilot program to provide up to $200 million in competitive grants over three years to help schools and libraries guard against cyberthreats, which have become more frequent and sophisticated in recent years. That proposal will also need to be approved by the full commission.

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