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Replacing the ECF

Comments Divided on FCC Proposal Funding Wi-Fi Hot Spots

CTIA broke with some trade associations in urging FCC approval of a November proposal permitting schools and libraries to use E-rate support for off-premises Wi-Fi hot spots and wireless internet services (see 2311090028). Other industry groups questioned whether the FCC has authority under the Communications Act to expand the E-rate program as proposed in November (see 2401180033). Commissioners Brendan Carr and Nathan Simington dissented on the NPRM. Replies were due Monday in docket 21-31.

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CTIA noted the importance of E-rate support following expiration of the emergency connectivity fund. “Virtually all commenters recognize that Wi-Fi hotspots connected to mobile broadband service should be supported through the program,” CTIA said. “These devices and services have been supported by ECF, are in use by many schools and libraries, and have proven successful at meeting the off-campus educational needs of schools and libraries,” it said.

While the importance of broadband connectivity to education is “inarguable,” that “does not settle the question presented, nor does it change the language of Section 254(h) of the Act, which expressly limits E-Rate funding ‘to elementary schools, secondary schools, and libraries,’” said NTCA. Congress has never directed the FCC “that the ECF be rolled into the E-Rate program or that the E-Rate program be expanded to match ECF rules when the ECF concluded,” the group said.

The Wireless ISP Association noted that the language of the Communications Act isn’t as sweeping as the ECF, approved in 2021, in terms of what it appears to allow. “Parties seeking to expand the Commission’s authority beyond the physical classroom fail to grapple sufficiently with the statutory limitations imposed by Congress,” WISPA said.

The FCC shouldn’t spend “limited E-Rate resources for off-premises connectivity that is addressed through other programs but rather focus on important E-Rate needs such as cybersecurity protection,” said Cox Communications. It warned of “myriad legal and practical" issues the FCC’s proposal raises.

TekWav, a Texas-based WISP, supported the FCC proposal. The agency should adopt “the same approach for eligible equipment and services as it did in the ECF Program -- making Wi-Fi hotspots, modems, routers, and commercially available fixed or mobile broadband Internet access services eligible to receiving funding.” TekWav said: Though the COVID-19 pandemic “has come to an end, the Digital Divide and Homework Gap continue to impact students across the country.”

The North American Catholic Educational Programming Foundation and Mobile Beacon said the proposal is “appropriately scoped to respond to an unmet need for education-related internet connectivity.” Given the “accelerating trend toward digitized learning, internet connectivity is not a luxury, but rather a necessity for learning today,” they said. But the two warned against imposing overly “prescriptive” rules on how the services are used.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center raised privacy concerns. The FCC should “reduce surveillance and administrative burdens as much as possible to ensure the program is safe and effective for students,” EPIC commented: “Requiring schools and libraries to collect personal information and monitor use of Wi-Fi hotspots will pose a serious threat to recipients’ privacy and render the E-Rate program less effective.”