States and local governments may now use federal E-rate funds to provide the general public access to schools’ and public libraries’ Internet facilities, according to a recent Federal Communications Commission order . Schools receiving funding under the E-rate program may extend their services to the general public during non-operating hours, that is, after school, weekends, holidays, and summer vacation.
E-rate’s Role in Digital Inclusion: E-rate is part of the federal Universal Service Fund , which subsidizes communication services to poor and rural areas. Under the original program, school and libraries received federal funding for Internet access as long as it is used for “educational purposes” only. This meant that only students could gain access to E-rate based broadband during school hours. Under a waiver first issued to rural communities in Alaska, the FCC is now allowing the general public to use E-rate computers and access the Internet during hours that students are not in school.
Why this Waiver is So Important: The purpose of this extension is to facilitate access for community members that want to conduct job searches or submit job applications; this comes at a time when the nation faces a 9.7% unemployment rate . A report by the One Economy Corporation , cited by the FCC, indicates that 80% of all Fortune 500 companies only accept job applications online. Thanks to more online access, un-served and under-served community members will also be able to participate in digital literacy programs and obtain online access to governmental services and resources. As acknowledged by the FCC’s order, increasing community access to the Internet is critical in communities where residential adoption and use of broadband Internet access has historically lagged , especially in rural, minority, and tribal communities.
For those who are worried about costs , this new order does not allow schools to request more funding than what they were already getting from their in-school needs. FCC Commissioner Robert M. McDowell warned , “the change in our rules... should not provide a backdoor way for schools to request more funds than necessary to support their student populations”¦” Another important aspect is that schools have the freedom to determine their own polices about the specific use of their Internet facilities, including the hours of use for the general public.
A Small Step in the Grand Scheme: This initiative is a step in the right direction, but is not the ultimate solution to close the digital divide. Free Press , for example, advocates for an “e-rate@home” program where community institutions extend their wifi connections to local neighborhoods and suggests exploring programs that loan laptops to school children.
And that is precisely what two state legislators from Kentucky have proposed. They introduced a resolution  with the purpose of providing laptops to middle school students. Other states have included legislative pieces in order to maximize participation in the E-rate program; the list includes New Jersey , California , Rhode Island , and Virginia . Furthermore, state legislators are proposing legislation to improve the connectivity in E-rate funded schools. In Minnesota , legislation has been introduced to construct fiber optic infrastructure to public schools to complement the funds already received by the E-Rate program. So while the FCC order is a step forward, states are already moving beyond it towards more comprehensive digital inclusion programs.
Federal Communications Commission - Order and Notice on Proposed Rule Making - CC Docket No. 02-6 
Benton Foundation - FCC Allows Community Use of E-Rate Supported Broadband 
One Economy Corporation - Comments of One Economy Corporation: National Digital Literacy Initiative 
Free Press - Free Press Welcomes E-Rate Improvement: Group Says Congress and FCC Still Must Do More to Close the Digital Divide 
Broadcasting & Cable - FCC Votes to Allow Schools Receiving Broadband Funding to Open Service to Public