FCC need not, and should not, wait for Congress to act to close the “homework gap”

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith joined over 30 of their colleagues in a letter to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) calling on the agency to immediately utilize the E-Rate program, the primary program at the FCC that helps schools and libraries connect to the internet, to ensure students have internet connectivity to do school work from home. Due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, students across the country are increasingly attending virtual classrooms. Yet, studies indicate that as many as 16 million children in the United States lack internet access at home and are unable to participate in online learning. These students are disproportionately from communities of color, low-income households, and rural areas.

The E-Rate Program is, and has been for more than two decades, an essential source of funding to connect the nation’s K-12 schools and libraries to the internet. The FCC has clear authority and funding available to connect students at home. Yet, the FCC has failed to ensure that every student is connected during the pandemic, leaving millions of children at risk of falling behind in their schoolwork.

“We specifically call on you to utilize the E-Rate program to close this “homework gap” without further delay...The FCC has the power to help mitigate the impact of the coronavirus on our most vulnerable families,” the lawmakers wrote. “We now urge you in the strongest possible terms to utilize this authority to provide internet connectivity and devices for children in need. School bells across the country have started to ring, but without immediate action, many students are at risk of never making it to class.”

The full letter can be found HERE.

In addition to Klobuchar and Smith, the letter was signed by Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Senator Edward J. Markey (D-MA), Ranking Member Maria Cantwell (D-WA), and Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Maggie Hassan (D-NH), and Brian Schatz (D-HI) The letter is also signed by Senators Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Mark Udall (D-NM), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Jack Reed (D-RI), Patty Murray (D-WA), Jacky Rosen (D-NV), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Angus King (I-ME), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Gary Peters (D-MI), Bob Casey, Jr, (D-PA), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Chris Murphy (D-CT), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Pat Leahy (D-VT), and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).

Smith has consistently supported legislation to expand broadband access across Minnesota. Her provision to expand access to broadband in rural and Tribal communities across the country, the Community Connect Grant Program, was passed into law as part of the 2018 Farm Bill. When Sen. Smith was contacted by several Minnesota cooperatives—which are a vital part of the effort to build out rural broadband in the state—that were at risk of losing their tax-exempt status due to a mistake in the 2017 tax law, Sen. Smith introduced a bipartisan fix that was signed into law. More recently, Sen. Smith pressed the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to speed up spending the resources allocated within COVID-19 relief legislation to expand broadband access for Minnesota families and people across the country.

As a member of the Senate Commerce Committee and co-chair of the bipartisan Senate Broadband Caucus, Klobuchar has long championed closing the digital divide and expanding access to the internet. 

In July, Klobuchar introduced The Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act with Senators Brian Schatz (D-HI), Mark Warner (D-VA), Ed Markey (D-MA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), and Jacky Rosen (D-NV) following introduction in the House of Representatives by Majority Whip James Clyburn and the Rural Broadband Task Force. The bill will invest $100 billion to build high-speed broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved communities to close the digital divide and connect Americans to ensure they have increased access to education, health care, and business opportunities. The bill passed the House as part of the House comprehensive infrastructure package in July. 

In May, Klobuchar and Smith, 42 other Senators joined Senator Markey in introducing the Emergency Educational Connections Act, which establishes a $4 billion Emergency Connectivity Fund at the FCC to provide support for schools and libraries to ensure that K-12 students have adequate home internet connectivity during the coronavirus pandemic. 

In May, Klobuchar and Senators Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Gary Peters (D-MI), and Rosen introduced the Supporting Connectivity for Higher Education Students in Need Act to help ensure that college and university students with the greatest financial needs can access high-speed internet during the coronavirus pandemic. The bill would appropriate $1 billion to establish an Emergency Higher Education Connectivity fund at the National Telecommunications Information Administration to help ensure that college and university students at historically Black colleges and universities, Tribal colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, and other minority-serving institutions, as well as rural-serving institutions, have adequate home internet connectivity during the coronavirus pandemic. The bill provides federal support for these colleges and universities to directly help students in need pay for at-home internet connections and equipment such as routers, modems, Wi-Fi hotspots, laptops, tablets, and internet-enabled devices to students. 

In March, Klobuchar and Senator Kevin Cramer (R-ND) introduced bipartisan legislation, supported by Smith, to sustain rural broadband connectivity during the coronavirus pandemic. The Keeping Critical Connections Act would appropriate $2 billion for a temporary Keeping Critical Connections fund at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to help small broadband providers sustain internet services and upgrades for students and low-income families during the pandemic.

Klobuchar has also urged the FCC to take action to ensure students have access to the internet so they can continue learning while schools are closed during the pandemic. In March, Klobuchar led a letter with Senators Peters and Jon Tester (D-MT) urging the FCC to ensure that all K-12 students have internet access and can continue learning from home as schools nationwide are closed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The letter also asked the FCC to create a searchable web portal to help consumers locate existing resources to help them connect to the internet.