June 16, 2020

Van Hollen Presses Pai on Using E-Rate Funds to Connect Students to the Internet Amid Distance Learning

Today, during a Senate Appropriations Financial Services and General Government subcommittee Hearing, U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) pressed Ajit Pai, Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on using the FCC's existing authority to connect millions of students to the internet so that they can participate in distance learning.

A full transcript of the Senator’s exchange is below.

SENATOR CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (D-Md.): Chairman Pai, welcome. I want to, first of all, thank you and the Commission for the work you've done to allocate telehealth funds to hospitals around the country, including in my state of Maryland, as well as other health care facilities. You broadly interpreted your authority to make that happen, correct?

AJIT PAI, FCC: Well we, I think we fairly interpreted it, but some might say broadly.

VAN HOLLEN: Alright. Well, I think it was broadly. And what I've been discouraged about is that you've not provided that same sort of liberal interpretation when it comes to providing internet services for students at home through the E-rate program. I think we've all seen that COVID-19 has exposed many disparities in our country, including the deep digital divide, as more and more people have to work from home and conduct their business and other affairs from home. Access to the internet and high-speed internet is absolutely essential. This was already the case before COVID-19, it's especially true now. And one of the most harmful impacts here, has been with respect to students. And you would agree with that, right?

PAI: Yes, sir.

VAN HOLLEN: Right, because we used to call it the homework gap. And I've introduced legislation to use the proceeds from the sale of spectrum, for that purpose, to help close the homework gap. And, I think you've been supportive of that idea. But of course, now it goes beyond homework. You know, students are having to do more and more learning throughout the day, online. And, we are working to try to put additional funds, in the next round of CARES response dedicated to that purpose. As you stated, there are funds that can be used for that purpose that we've provided already in the CARES Act. They go to school systems, but school systems have a huge amount of demands on their resources right now. So, the idea is to get dedicated funds in the next round that we could direct through the E-rate program for students. Would you support that?

PAI: It depends on how it's structured, Senator. Just so you know, I share your frustration which is why several months ago, when the CARES Act was being negotiated, we proposed a remote learning initiative, outside of the context of E-rate, with its artificial calendar, other administrative restrictions, and whatnot. We proposed essentially, a streamlined process – program for remote learning.  We called it the Remote Learning Initiative. And, if we had that now, similar to what we've done with the telehealth program, we could get the money out the door, in a way that meets the student's needs, a lot quicker, we think. And so, happy to work with you, on how the vehicle would be structured.

VAN HOLLEN: Right. No, look, we want to structure this going forward in the best way possible. In the meantime, we've got the laws and regulations that are on the books.

PAI: Yeah.

VAN HOLLEN: Right? And, I know you're relaxed your gift rule, to allow schools to accept Wi-Fi hotspots and devices directly from companies, right?

PAI: That's correct.

VAN HOLLEN: But as I look at the authority used for that, it seems to me you can use that same authority to allow E-rate funds to be used, to allow school systems to purchase directly hotspots, devices, and computers, for students who are disconnected. And I'm baffled by why you haven't used that flexibility to do so? I'm just looking at the language here, from the USAC website, the Universal Service Administration Company, it says that "activities that customarily occur on library or school property are presumed to be integral, immediate, approximate to the education of students." It seems to me, at this particular time, when students are doing their work from home, that you could clearly allow E-rate funds to be used for this purpose. So, can you take another look at that?

PAI: I'd be happy to Senator. The problem, I wish we could. We always have the discretion to waive our rules, for good cause shown. But we can't waive a statute. In section 254 of the statute says specifically, that services to classrooms is what the FCC can support through the E-rate program. I agree with you, a quarter-century ago when this language was drafted, no one conceived that people would be learning out of a brick and mortar facility. But if there's a way to amend that statute or as I said, to give us authority through a remote learning initiative, to meet the needs of students, we're always happy to do that.

VAN HOLLEN: Right. Well, I mean, we're working to amend it. But just to provide clarity to what I think you could already do if you interpreted your authorities within the context of the current emergency. So I hope we can have a discussion about your existing authority to use this. Because, right now as we speak, before we do another round of legislation, which I hope will address this issue – but right now, I believe you're not using your authorities fully for this purpose. So, we'll follow up with you on this. Thank you, Mr. Chair.

PAI: Thank you, Senator.