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Draft Was Changed

FCC Approves 3-Year Cybersecurity Pilot 3-2 Over Republican Dissents

The FCC on Thursday approved 3-2 a three-year, $200 million cybersecurity pilot program for schools and libraries. Commissioners Brendan Carr and Nathan Simington dissented, as some had predicted (see 2406040039). The two cited concerns with the FCC using E-rate program funds for the effort. Commissioners Geoffrey Starks and Anna Gomez indicated changes were inserted into the pilot rules at their request.

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Carr said he supported making connections more secure but is concerned about the FCC’s legal authority to launch the pilot. “I wanted to be particularly sure that we were on exceptionally firm legal footing here and at the end of the day I wasn’t able to get there,” he said during the commissioners' open meeting. Carr said he understood how his commission colleagues found that the FCC possessed the legal authority.

During a news conference, Carr said his stance was similar to his opposition late last year to a proposal that used E-rate funds for Wi-Fi on school buses (see 2311090028). “The relative statutory language talks about funding for connections to classrooms,” he said. The cyber pilot is likely on firmer footing because it addresses connections into classrooms, he said.

"Cybersecurity “is a highly laudable use of E-rate funds, but I am concerned that the authority we cite in the item does not support the move we make today," Simington said.

The pilot is modeled on the FCC’s “successful” connected care pilot, Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said. “Over the course of the next three years, this initiative will make sure gains in enhanced cybersecurity do not come at the cost of undermining E-rate’s success in promoting digital equity and basic connectivity,” she said. Rosenworcel said the FCC’s authority stems from Section 254 of the Communications Act.

The “increasingly digital world creates opportunities for malicious actors and, like other aspects of the digital divide, this is an issue of equity,” Gomez said: “Under-resourced school districts and their students are the most vulnerable to cyberattacks.” Gomez said the draft was tweaked to “targeted resources and support for under-resourced schools and libraries that have less cybersecurity expertise.”

Starks said draft changes address his concerns about the pilot's budget and ensure it “produces the type of data that I think is necessary to be able to best analyze the pilot’s success.” The pilot “will provide us with the information necessary to analyze whether and how the commission should update our E-rate program to help schools and libraries help themselves against the ongoing cyberthreats,” he said.

The Commission aims to learn how to improve school and library defenses against sophisticated ransomware and cyberattacks that put students at risk and impede their learning,” according to a news release. The pilot will allow the FCC “to gather the data needed to better understand whether and how universal service funds could be used to support the cybersecurity needs of schools and libraries and to share lessons learned with our federal partners to jointly combat this growing problem.”

The Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition preferred an 18-month pilot “with more funding and immediate eligibility for advanced firewalls under E-rate Category 2,” said Executive director John Windhausen: “Despite our disappointment with the overly long three-year timeline and limited funding, this order is an important step in the right direction.”

The cybersecurity threats facing our educational institutions are significant,” Funds For Learning CEO John Harrington said. “This pilot program represents a crucial step in providing the resources necessary to safeguard sensitive information and maintain secure, reliable access to digital learning tools.”