Policy & Funding

E-rate Opens Latest Application Window Even as Educators Push for Program Expansion

The latest E-rate application filing window has opened and will close at 11:59 p.m. Eastern time on Mar. 25, 2021. This will be the 24th year that the program, run by the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC), has funded communications technology for schools and libraries. This year's program introduces a few tweaks, meant to address equity and streamline the application process. But what's left unfunded are some of the larger wishlist items put forward by the education sector to address the digital divide.

According to Funds for Learning, an E-rate consultancy, funding year 2021 brings the finalization of a handful of rule changes, introduced by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which oversees USAC. Those include these modifications:

  • School district Category Two budgets will be calculated at $167 per student, and library applicants at $4.50 per square foot. The per-site funding "floor" is increasing from $9,200 to $25,000.

  • Category 2 budgets will be calculated on a school district or library system basis. School districts and libraries will have a single budget to administer.

  • Equipment transfer rules will be" relaxed." Equipment purchased in this fiscal year round and those going forward can be transferred between eligible sites at any time.

According to Funds for Learning, items two and three will deliver increased flexibility to applicants while decreasing program complexity.

But the real changes school IT leaders would like to see have to do with more immediate needs of helping students who lack internet access at home. A group of education advocates, led by the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition, petitioned the FCC this week to allow schools to use E-rate funding for the purchase and distribution of internet hotspots, expanded Wi-Fi access on library grounds and Wi-Fi "on the go" with technology-equipped mobile units, including school buses.

"Permanently closing this 'homework gap' will require a major investment from Congress and the Biden administration, but the FCC can take an important first step by using existing E-rate funds to provide temporary emergency help," said signatory Anna Maria Chávez, executive director and CEO of the National School Boards Association, in a statement. "There is no time to waste. Our students need a life raft."

President Biden's pick to lead the FCC, Jessica Rosenworcel, has long been a proponent of expanding the mandate of E-rate to include providing broadband access for underserved students, including those in rural areas. However, until the FCC commission has added a fifth member, Acting Chair Rosenworcel could be stymied by politics in her efforts to expand E-rate coverage -- at least until a fifth commissioner is appointed. The make-up of the current commission includes two Democratic appointees (Rosenworcel and Commissioner Geoffrey Starks) and two Republican appointees (Nathan Simington and Brendan Carr). Under the former administration, the FCC made no moves to expand the use of E-rate funding outside of the borders of schools and libraries to address the remote learning.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.