Policy & Funding

FCC Chair Proposes $200 Million Pilot for Data Security in Schools and Libraries

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel formally announced a proposal that would create a $200 million, three-year pilot program to help pay for data and information security services in K–12 schools and in libraries.

"With the growing number of sophisticated cyberattacks on schools and especially the rise in malicious ransomware attacks that harm our students, now is the time to take action," Rosenworcel said in a statement released today. “We’re proposing a significant investment of up to $200 million over three years to harden the cyber defenses and determine the most effective methods to protect our schools and libraries. Our pilot program will work in tandem with federal agency partners that have deep expertise in this area."

The proposal, which follows a notice seeking public comment published in December, would begin a process that could eventually add data security-related services to the list of eligible services under the Universal Service Fund, albeit, as it stands, separate from E-rate itself.

"The need for advanced cybersecurity measures in K–12 schools is significant, and the costs for adequate protection continue to rise," said Brian Stephens, director, stakeholder engagement, at Funds For Learning, which provides services and expertise to districts navigating the E-rate funding process. "Many of the comments submitted to the FCC in early 2023 cited examples of schools who had fallen victim to sophisticated attacks, and studies show that K–12 institutions are an increasingly popular target for cyber criminals."

National School Boards Association Executive Director and CEO Verjeana McCotter-Jacobs released a statement expressing the importance of the program as well: "Cyberattacks present a triple threat for our nation’s schools and libraries. Cyberattacks shut down computer networks, resulting in lost learning time for students and financial losses to districts, but they can also put the personal data of students and school employees at risk, potentially resulting in the theft of Social Security numbers, birth dates, and other private information. Chairwoman Rosenworcel’s proposal is a smart approach to combat these threats. We appreciate her ongoing commitment to our nation's schools and students and we urge her fellow commissioners to support her proposal."

The proposal is the third phase in Rosenworcel's "Learn Without Limits" initiative. Phase 1 included adding WiFi support on school buses. Phase 2 focused on the provisioning of WiFi hotspots so that schools and libraries could check them out to patrons.

According to Rosenworcel: "The third phase of Learn Without Limits is a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, that if adopted, ... seeks comment on structuring a pilot program to support cybersecurity and advanced firewall-related services for eligible K–12 schools and libraries. The Commission has been closely looking at this issue for years, and in December 2022 put out a notice seeking public comment whether to add advanced firewalls or other network security services as E-rate-eligible services. The proposal put forward today would establish the pilot program within the Universal Service Fund, but separate from the E-Rate program, to ensure gains in enhanced cybersecurity don’t come at a cost of undermining E-Rate’s success in promoting digital equity."

"It’s hard to say for sure what a permanent cybersecurity program may look like," said Funds for Learning's Stephens. "I suspect that a significant part of the pilot will be collecting and analyzing data about the services being purchased and their costs. Patterns that emerge from the data may help shape what happens once the pilot ends."

When asked about a potential timeline for getting a pilot underway, Stephens said: "Tough to predict at this stage. If approved, the commission will circulate a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. At a minimum, the NPRM will have a comment period (typically at least 45 days) before any official rules will go into effect. Because the pilot will be separate from E-rate, there will likely be some time involved in getting an application process up and running as well. As a point of reference, the first Emergency Connectivity Fund application window opened on June 29, 2021, a little more than three months after the passage of the American Rescue Plan Act."

The FCC announcement was made as part of remarks delivered to the School Superintendents Association. Further details can be found on the FCC site.

This article has been updated since its original publication with additional quotes from Funds for Learning and the National School Boards Association.

About the Author

David Nagel is the former editorial director of 1105 Media's Education Group and editor-in-chief of THE Journal, STEAM Universe, and Spaces4Learning. A 30-year publishing veteran, Nagel has led or contributed to dozens of technology, art, marketing, media, and business publications.

He can be reached at [email protected]. You can also connect with him on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/davidrnagel/ .