FCC asks Congress to fund more broadband for education

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said he has asked Congress to authorize and fund his agency to support remote learning. (FCC)

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said he has asked Congress to increase funding for broadband in support of education, claiming that the agency has seen success with its Covid-19 Telehealth Program and could do the same with a program for remote learning.

“I have asked Congress for authority and funding for a remote learning initiative like what we did for tele-health,” Pai said, speaking on a webinar hosted by the Internet Innovation Alliance. “I know that there are of course different fiscal demands on the Congress at any given time, but to me at least, when you’re talking to consumers who are out there, broadband is pretty much at the top of the list for many of them, so I would hope [Congress] could give the FCC more resources to be able to do that kind of job, as they did with the Covid-19 Telehealth Program.”

Congress appropriated $200 million for tele-health as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The FCC is currently administering applications for the funding, which eligible healthcare providers can use to pay for telecommunications services, information services, and devices necessary to provide tele-health services. 

“The results speak for themselves. You’re seeing healthcare facilities across the country doing groundbreaking things,” Pai said.

While the CARES Act allocated $200 million to tele-health, it allocated a much, much higher amount -- $16 billion -- to local school districts. None of that was specifically earmarked for broadband, but Pai thinks that is an appropriate use of the funds.  “We believe that per the statute, one of the purposes for which that $16 billion can be used is education technology,” he said. “So we’re working now through the Department of Education to bring this to the attention of school districts to say ‘Look, there’s a huge amount of money here that’s available for education technology. Work with us to get your school the connectivity it needs.’”

Separately, the FCC Chair is lobbying Congress for specific funding to support remote learning technology. The federal government already funds a program called E-Rate to subsidize technology for schools, but Pai has resisted calls to try to apply that money to remote learning because the E-Rate statute says the money is to be used for classroom technology.

“At the end of the day, the statute is the statute and that’s why we’ve gone proactively to Congress to get the authority we need to do some more remote learning-type initiatives,” Pai said. 

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Earlier this month, a group called the Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition sent to Congress draft legislation asking for more than $5 billion to support remote learning. The group said the funds should be administered by the FCC and should be used to support broadband connections for student and teacher homes that lack service as well as digital devices for students.