State E-rate Coordinators (SECA) Ask FCC to Allow E-rate to Pay for Additional Internet Bandwidth for FY2020 and Extend the Waiver of the Gift Rule
Schools and libraries have been essentially shuttered since the onset of the pandemic in March and April of this year. While many had hoped that Fall would see a back to school plan, many students and teachers across our nation must continue remote learning at home.
Over the past several months there have been numerous calls to actions by thousands of organizations for Congress to increase federal funding for remote learning, but no action has yet been taken. As a result, many schools and libraries are left to identify any resource available to them to increase their bandwidth and provide ways to connect their students with devices to participate in online remote learning this fall.
On March 18, 2020, the FCC waived its federal gift rule requirement under the E-rate Program to allow schools and libraries to solicit and accept gifts in the form of upgrades to bandwidth and equipment for remote learning during the pandemic through September 30, 2020.
Concerned with the uncertainties of the pandemic that continues to plague our nation’s schools, leading national education organizations such as the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition (SHLB), the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), and the State Educational Technologies Directors Association (SETDA) (“Joint Letter”) and the State E-rate Coordinators Alliance (SECA) filed Letters (SECA Letter) (Joint Letter) with the FCC seeking an extension of the waiver of the gift rules until June 30, 2021.
SECA went further to request the FCC to implement COVID-19 emergency provisions to allow schools and libraries to seek additional E-rate funding for increased on-campus Internet connectivity bandwidth during the pandemic through June 30, 2021. The necessity of the additional funding is a result of the timing of the pandemic in America. The FCC FY2020 Form 471 Application for E-rate funding year closed on April 29, 2020, in the middle of the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
At that time, many schools were not aware of what their additional Internet connectivity requirements would be, so they had to enter into contract amendments or new contracts with their current or new service providers under emergency competitive bidding rules to meet those increased bandwidth needs. As a result, because the FCC Form 471 application window closed, these schools and libraries will now have to pay for the increases out-of-pocket without the benefit of any E-rate funding.
In its letter, SECA suggests three possible paths to for the FCC to consider in allowing for this additional funding:
- Allow applicants to submit appeals to seek additional FY2020 Internet connectivity funding to account for the bandwidth increases. It is recommended that the FCC empower USAC to process and approve such appeals. In the past, when the FCC has waived regulations and deadlines, it has directed USAC to implement the waiver of the deadlines. This would be a similar process. This option would enable applicants to either amend existing FRNs or to establish new FRNs for additional Internet services.
- Provide a liberal waiver policy for late-submitted FY 2020 Form 471 applications that seek funding for Internet. This is similar to Option 1 but would require each affected applicant to submit a request for waiver of the E-rate deadline to the FCC and would require the FCC to review and process each waiver.
- Open a special, one-time E-rate Form 471 filing window to permit applicants to submit new funding requests for the additional Internet bandwidth they need.
In order to comply with the current federal requirements, SECA acknowledges that waivers will have to be sought by the schools and libraries if the FCC were to allow for the additional funding. It proposes the following three options for FCC consideration:
- Waive the requirement to post a new Form 470 and conduct a competitive bid process before signing the contract for additional bandwidth.
- Waive any requirement that a contract amendment must be explicitly mentioned in an establishing Form 470 and the original contract document.
- Waive any requirement that the bandwidth quantity increase must be supported by an establishing Form 470.
Now more than ever, it is clear that our nation’s schools and libraries are in need of high-speed reliable and dedicated broadband solutions. Too often, schools are left to rely upon legacy lit fiber solutions that keep the schools tied to low bandwidth speeds at high costs. The FCC’s 2014 Modernization Order recognized the need for improving high-speed network builds through special construction.
In its recent Park Hill Order, the FCC granted the appeal and discussed the benefits and allowable partnerships with municipalities and other non E-rate third-parties that school districts may enter into in building fiber networks.