A bipartisan bill in the U.S. Senate pushes for school buses to be eligible for federal E-rate funding for internet connectivity, signaling to the FCC that it might be time to rethink its standing policy on how to fund school Wi-Fi projects.
S.2958 was introduced and read twice on May 24 before being referred to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation, where it remained at this writing. If enacted, it would require the FCC to initiate rulemaking to allow public school student transporters to access the funds for school bus Wi-Fi. The FCC has consistently ruled that school buses be left off of the eligible list of E-rate projects.
The Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), an organization representing K-12 education technology leaders nationwide, said that S.958, sponsored by Sens. Tom Udall (D-NM) and Cory Gardner (R-CO), is a “21st Century bill to address ... 21st Century learning environments.”
“Expanding E-Rate funds to support internet connectivity on school buses will improve educational access for students—especially in rural areas,” said Keith Krueger, CEO of CosN on May 25. “In fact, the U.S. Department of Education found that 80 percent of eighth graders use a computer at home for schoolwork on a weekday. This puts students without home internet access at a significant disadvantage. As some districts have already demonstrated, equipping buses with Wi-Fi will recapture lost learning time spent traveling to and from school.”
Michael Flood, vice president of strategy for school Wi-Fi software provider Kajeet and a CoSN member, told School Transportation News that S. 2958 could influence the five-member, Republican-led FCC board to reverse its decision to not include school buses with school buildings and libraries as eligible projects as early as next month, when it releases its draft proposal for the coming fiscal year.
Flood said if the FCC again decides not to make school buses eligible, it could force the Senate to act, due to the bill’s bipartisan support.
School bus Wi-Fi has at least one supporter on the FCC, Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel.
Too many students—especially in rural areas—struggle with getting the internet access they need for schoolwork. This is a #HomeworkGap we need to address. Kudos to @SenatorTomUdall & @SenCoryGardner for their legislation to put #wifi on school buses to address this problem.— Jessica Rosenworcel (@JRosenworcel) May 24, 2018
Either way, Flood said Kajeet is advising its school bus clients that Wi-Fi certainly won’t be E-rate eligible for the coming school year—and it could be eligible for the 2019-2020 school year if the FCC approves it this summer. If the Senate bill passes requiring rulemaking, school bus Wi-Fi wouldn’t be E-rate eligible until at least the 2020-2021 school year.
“In the meantime, we are certainly encouraging districts to understand which of their buses would benefit and to start planning for the technology needed to support it,” Flood said. He explained that routes of 30 minutes or more, especially in rural areas, are ideal candidates for Wi-Fi.
He added that the company has now deployed school bus Wi-Fi for 155 school districts in 38 states.
The Google “Rolling Study Halls” project resulted in increased media attention to the topic of internet equality, Flood added. Both Udall and Gardner attended events in New Mexico and Colorado, respectively, that showcased how students can use Wi-Fi access from Kajeet on their Chromebooks to complete homework on rural and long-commute routes.
Udall has been a proponent of school bus Wi-Fi since at least 2016, when he called on the FCC in a letter to then-Chairman Tom Wheeler to make it an eligible E-rate project. He cited a third of households in his home state lacking internet access because they can’t afford it, or service is not available. Meanwhile, Udall said seven out of 10 teachers at the time were assigning homework that required internet access.
“Broadband should help create educational opportunities for these children, not a new barrier to their success at school,” Udall wrote in Oct. 2016, after hearing from New Mexico students about the challenges they encounter in trying to find Wi-Fi after school hours.