Education Groups Dispute Claims of E-Rate ‘Waste’ in Wireless Connectivity


Heritage Foundation assers no correlation between the provision of Wi-Fi hotspots and improved educational outcomes.

Jericho Casper Education Groups Dispute Claims of E-Rate ‘Waste’ in Wireless Connectivity Photo of Annie Chestnut, policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation

WASHINGTON, April 19, 2024 – Education advocacy organizations are pushing back against a critical filing concerning the Federal Communications Commission’s proposal to permit E-Rate funding for off-campus wireless broadband connectivity.

Monday saw a joint response from the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition, the American Library Association, and the Consortium for School Networking to a letter from the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

Heritage had voiced opposition to the FCC’s current E-Rate proposal, citing “arbitrariness, lack of evidence, erosion of parental authority, wasteful spending, and lack of authority.” 

The public interest groups disputed the Heritage Foundation’s characterizations of E-Rate. Heritage said there is no evidence supporting a connection between the provision of Wi-Fi hotspots and improved educational outcomes. It also raised concerns about the impact of increased screen time on children’s mental health, aiming to dissuade the FCC from allocating E-Rate funds for off-campus connectivity provision.

The public interest groups countered by citing seven studies demonstrating a beneficial link between internet access and academic achievement. One study indicates that students without home internet access are also less inclined to pursue a college or university degree.

Heritage’s letter also implied that the FCC’s proposed changes would result in the wasteful use of E-Rate funds and that introducing another funding source would strain the current funding framework.

The public interest groups said this reflected a misunderstanding of how the current E-Rate system operates. The current E-Rate cap sits at $4.9 billion per year, but the actual demand for E-Rate support is around $3.2 billion.

“There is sufficient headroom in the E-Rate program to support off-campus E-Rate support without ‘squeezing’ existing E-Rate services,” the groups’ response states.

Exceeding Section 254 authority?

Heritage also claimed that the rulemaking exceeded the FCC’s statutory authority, and said that Section 254 limits E-Rate funds only to telecommunications and information services in school classrooms and libraries. 

The word “only” does not appear in that section of the statute, the public interest groups counter, adding that other subsections of Section 254 establish neutral rules for delivering communication services across all regions of the country at just, reasonable, and affordable rates.

While many schools and libraries obtained hot spots during the Emergency Connectivity Fund program and used them successfully, many other schools and libraries found that traditional hot spots were not effective, the groups’ joint filing said that Wi-Fi mesh networks, or Citizens’ Broadband Radio Service-based tools, could provide higher levels of service at lower cost. They also said there are ways for improving the efficiency of the E-Rate.

The groups encourage the FCC to review the cost study submitted into the record on behalf of SHLB and the Open Technology Institute of the New America think tank. That study documented substantial cost savings if these other technologies were equally eligible for E-Rate funding.