FCC Pressured To Let Libraries Bridge Broadband Access During The Pandemic

from the little-things dept

An estimated 42 million Americans lack access to broadband, nearly double official FCC estimates. That’s kind of a problem during a pandemic when your education, employment, family connection, healthcare and very survival depend on being tethered to the internet. And it’s a particular problem for the tens of millions more Americans who can’t afford access because we’ve happily allowed the US telecom sector to become monopolized by a handful of providers.

Last year, the nation’s schools and libraries came to the Trump FCC with a novel idea to bridge the gap during the crisis: why not let libraries and schools temporarily provide broadband access to their communities? The FCC’s E-Rate program already helps bridge the digital divide by financing a portion of school and library broadband access. But the rules don’t clearly allow them to offer service beyond property lines. So, the American Library Association, which represents the country’s 16,557 public libraries, wrote a letter (pdf) to the Ajit Pai FCC, asking if they could provide emergency access without the FCC punishing them for it.

And the Ajit Pai FCC simply… didn’t answer their question. The FCC made it clear schools and libraries could leave on existing WiFi hotspots so folks on the wrong side of the digital divide could huddle together in school and library parking lots, but it simply ignored their request to be able to deliver more creative solutions, be it letting students have temporary access to mobile hotspots at home, or the creation of things like mobile WiFi-capable bookmobiles. The FCC Chair has the emergency authority to make this happen, Ajit Pai just… didn’t want to.

With new leadership at the FCC, some lawmakers are pressuring the agency to revisit the idea so that kids don’t have to huddle outside of Taco Bell just to attend class in the wealthiest country in the history of the planet:

The estimate is that around 12 million kids can’t get online, though given the FCC’s data collection and broadband mapping efforts tend more toward fantasy than reality, you can be fairly sure that number is notably higher. The catch: existing E-Rate funding would require a boost from Congress. The same Congress that thought nothing of giving AT&T billions in wasted subsidies, regulatory favors, and a $42 billion tax cut in exchange for absolutely nothing, but will hem and haw endlessly over whether we should finance emergency broadband access to poor kids during an unprecedented crisis.

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