FCC Proposes New E-Rate Initiative to Fund Off-Campus Wi-Fi

WASHINGTON, October 19, 2023 – The Federal Communications Commission voted on Thursday to proceed with several measures, including expanding school Wi-Fi subsidies, using broadband data for maternal health research, and allowing low-power devices to operate in the 6 gigahertz band.

The commission also voted to move forward with its net neutrality proposal. 

Expanding E-Rate

The commission voted to adopt a rule allowing money from its E-Rate program to fund Wi-Fi connectivity on school buses. Starting in 2024, that will include discounts on internet plans and devices.

E-Rate provides subsidies to schools and libraries for broadband connection and devices through the Universal Service Fund. FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel and Democratic lawmakers have been pushing to broaden the program since June.

Like the net neutrality proposal, the E-Rate expansion measure passed on party lines, with the commission’s two Republicans voting against it. Taking the same tack as Republican politicians, they argued that since buses are not themselves classrooms or libraries, the beneficiaries outlined in the law creating the program, E-Rate funds cannot be used for school bus Wi-Fi.

All other measures put forward passed unanimously.

Broadband access and maternal health

The FCC voted to launch a notice of inquiry into adding maternal health data to its Mapping Broadband Health in America platform.

At the direction of the Data Mapping to Save Moms’ Live Act, the commission updated the platform in June to include CDC data on maternal mortality and maternal morbidity – severe complications in labor and childbirth.

The latest notice of inquiry will seek comment on other data points to include and how to do so while protecting patients’ privacy. It also looks to hear from the public on current broadband-enabled maternal health services, common barriers to accessing those services, and what the commission might do to address them.

“The United States is the only industrialized country with a rising level of maternal mortality,” said Rosenworcel. “If there are ways this data can further assist efforts to address the maternal health care crisis, we want to know.”

Very-low-power devices in the 6 GHz band

The commission adopted a rule opening parts of the 6 GHz band for unlicensed use by very-low-power devices.

A total of 850 MHz in the band is now open for use by VLP devices both indoors and out, with no frequency coordination system. The commission first opened the band for unlicensed use in 2020.

The move is aimed at enabling new Wi-Fi-connected technologies and keeping the U.S. competitive ahead of the World Radiocommunication Conference in November.

The adopted rule also seeks comment on opening the entire 6 GHz band – another 350 MHz of spectrum – to VLP operation and allowing higher power levels with a geofencing system to prevent interference with incumbents.

Wi-Fi activists have pushed for the FCC to move faster on those two items, citing a growing need for Wi-Fi capacity as the nation looks to close the digital divide.

Alaska Connect Fund and USF updates

The commission voted to seek comments on how to set up an Alaska Connect Fund, which would continue USF support for Alaskan broadband. 

Alaskan broadband and mobile providers can currently receive support from the FCC’s Alaska Plan in the form of fixed payments from the USF. The FCC took the measure in 2016 because of the difficulties in deploying and maintaining infrastructure in Alaska’s harsh climate and large area.

The Alaska Connect Fund proposal seeks comments on what changes to the Alaska Plan would allow more Alaskans to get connected. The commission is also looking to hear about including ACF participation requirements, like Affordable Connectivity Program participation and cybersecurity standards, as well as how to include Tribal governments in the program.

In adopting the measure, the FCC also streamlined aspects of the Universal Service Fund, which it administers through the Universal Service Administrative Company.

Changes to the fund include removing certain filing requirements, modifying reporting deadlines, increasing performance testing requirements, and clarifying merger rules.

Emergency alerts

Commissioners also voted to update the Wireless Emergency Alerts program, which allows government entities to distribute emergency alerts to mobile devices.

Participating mobile providers now have to support multilingual alerts by enabling devices to display alert messages in each of the 13 most commonly spoken languages in the U.S., as well as including maps that show users’ locations relative to emergency areas in alerts.

The adopted rules establish a WEA database to display information about which carriers participate in which geographic areas. Carriers will be required to submit information to the FCC in order to participate.

Alerting authorities are also now allowed to send two localized test alerts per year.