February 10, 2021

Gillibrand Calls On FCC To Provide Immediate Emergency Funding For E-Rate Program

Many Schools Remain Closed Due To COVID-19, Reliable Internet Access Is Critical For Students To Continue Remote Learning; Pandemic Has Exacerbated Homework Gap For Underserved Students Who Lack Access To Reliable Internet

U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand joined more than 40 Senate Democrats to call on the new Federal Communications Commission (FCC) leadership to immediately provide emergency funds for the E-Rate program as schools and students continue to rely on remote learning during the pandemic. The E-Rate program allows students to learn safely from home while guaranteeing online access to course materials.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 4.4 million households with children nationwide do not have consistent access to computers for online learning during the pandemic. Research shows the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the “homework gap” experienced by an estimated 16 million students who lack reliable internet access at home. These students are disproportionately from low-income households, rural areas and communities of color. 

The FCC has authority and available funding under the E-Rate program to help these students access reliable internet at home — especially at a time when most students continue with online learning. However, under the Trump administration, the FCC refused to use the emergency authority available to the chair to make resources available to connect vulnerable children through the E-Rate program. In addition to immediate emergency funding for the E-RATE program, Gillibrand and her colleagues are continuing to call on Congress to pass their previously introduced Emergency Educational Connections Actwhich would invest $4 billion in educational funding in the next relief package to ensure students have access to technology and broadband to continue online learning.

“As children across New York State continue online learning nearly a year after the pandemic first closed our schools, the FCC must finally provide emergency E-Rate funding to keep underserved and rural communities connected,” said Senator Gillibrand. “Millions of children who lack reliable internet access are at risk of falling further behind through no fault of their own. The FCC’s refusal to act has been an immense failure and I hope the new administration will right this wrong. While I urge the FCC to act immediately to support our students, I will continue fighting to pass legislation that will provide billions in E-Rate funding to help close the homework gap during this pandemic.”

Full text of the letter can be found here and below. 

Dear Acting Chairwoman Rosenworcel: 

Under your new leadership, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) must act quickly to address a wide range of pressing issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Among these, we urge you to immediately begin providing home internet connectivity and devices to students who are unable to participate in online learning during this ongoing emergency. We specifically call on the FCC to take long-overdue action and utilize the E-Rate program to start bridging the “homework gap” without delay. 

Studies indicate that as many as 16 million children in the United States lack internet access at home and are unable to participate in online learning. These students are disproportionally from communities of color, low-income households, and rural areas. Despite our repeated call to address this homework gap, your predecessor at the FCC refused to use the emergency authority available to the Chair and resources available through the E-Rate program to connect these vulnerable children. This mistake allowed far too many students to fall behind in their education.

The E-Rate is, and has been for over two decades, an essential source of funding to connect the nation’s schools and libraries to the internet. Contrary to your predecessor's assertions, the FCC has always had clear emergency authority to utilize existing E-Rate funding to connect students learning online during the coronavirus pandemic. The statute authorizing this program does not preclude the FCC from freeing funds to connect students’ homes during the current crisis — which, because schools have had to close their doors, have become de facto classrooms for millions of children.

We appreciate that you have already recognized the FCC’s ability to act, including by asserting in congressional testimony that the “the FCC could use E-Rate right now to provide every school library with Wi-Fi hotspots and other connectivity devices to loan out to students who lack reliable internet access at home.” In accordance with this statement, we urge you to now use your new leadership of the FCC to depart from the prior Commission's erroneous position. Specifically, we request that you immediately leverage the E-Rate program to begin providing connectivity and devices for remote learning. Although the funds currently available through the E-Rate will not be enough to connect every student across the country, your prompt action would provide an essential down payment. From there, Congress must provide the resources needed to finish the job by passing our Emergency Educational Connections Act, legislation that would appropriate billions more to be delivered through the E-Rate program to help close the homework gap during the pandemic. 

As we approach the one-year anniversary of this public health emergency, the urgency of combined action by the FCC and Congress cannot be overstated. Together, we can provide the long-overdue support that our most vulnerable students require. We know you share our concerns and look forward to working with you to bridge the homework gap during this crisis, as well as design a permanent solution to the digital divide in the days ahead. 

Thank you for your attention to this important matter. Due to the telework policies of many Senate offices during the coronavirus pandemic, physical signatures are unavailable. The listed senators have asked to be signatories to this letter.