As millions of Americans hunker down to slow the spread of coronavirus, the lack of affordable broadband access has become a far more pressing problem. The FCC’s 2019 Broadband Deployment Report states that 21.3 million Americans lack access to any broadband whatsoever, be it cable, DSL, fiber, or wireless. Recent studies suggest that number is actually twice that thanks to inaccurate FCC broadband availability maps. It’s a problem that is notably worse in many low-income and minority communities, long-neglected by the nation’s incumbent broadband monopolies. For many Americans, the local library is their best and sometimes only opportunity to get online. But with many schools and libraries closing to protect public health, these users are losing access to a valuable resource in a time of crisis. In a letter to the FCC last Thursday, the American Library Association (ALA) floated a solution: why not turn the nation’s 16,557 public libraries into free, communal broadband Wi-Fi hotspots, then extend that access into the broader communities that surround them?
American libraries are subsidized by the FCC E-Rate program, which helps them obtain and deliver broadband access to bridge the digital divide. But the ALA said libraries were worried that the Trump FCC—which has taken aim at the program in recent years—would penalize them for extending broadband access to users that are technically not on library property.
“We’re all familiar with stories of people in the library parking lot after hours using the Wi-Fi, but some libraries may refrain if they believe they must cost-allocate a portion of their capacity to account for usage outside their building walls,” the ALA wrote. The ALA urged the FCC to waive E-rate restrictions so libraries could not only offer Wi-Fi access via local libraries, but could also provide broadband service to disconnected communities via bookmobiles and mobile hotspots without running afoul of FCC rules. “Our current crisis demands extraordinary measures,” the ALA said in a statement. The ALA’s request came on the heels of similar letters from both the Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition and the Education and Library Networks Coalition (EdLiNC). Former FCC lawyer Gigi Sohn told Motherboard that the FCC has more than $1 billion in available funding from the last round of E-rate subsidies, and could easily waive E-rate restrictions during a crisis. She added that the Trump FCC initially told petitioners it lacked the authority to make such a change. “The FCC is telling advocates for this that it lacks the authority under the law to do this because the law says that the funding should go to ‘elementary and secondary school classrooms,’ and distance learning doesn’t take place in the classroom,” she said.
On Monday the FCC issued a statement making it clear that libraries would not be penalized under E-Rate rules for extending Wi-Fi access beyond their property boundaries. “We leave it to individual schools and libraries to establish their own policies regarding use of their Wi-Fi networks during closures, including hours of use,” the FCC said. But while the FCC said it was ok for libraries to leave their hotspots running during the pandemic, the agency simply ignored libraries’ questions as to whether they’d be penalized for extending access into the broader community. The FCC did not respond to a request for comment seeking clarification. “We are pleased that the FCC, in response to our request, has clarified that schools and libraries may leave their Wi-Fi networks on for community use without jeopardizing their E-rate funding,” the The SHLB Coalition said in a statement. “The SHLB Coalition now encourages the FCC to take the next step and grant the Petition of the Boulder Valley School District to permit schools and libraries to extend their broadband services to surrounding residential consumers.” Sohn said the FCC—which has been quick to violate or ignore agency rules entirely when it’s to the benefit of the nation’s incumbent telecom monopolies—needs to do more.
“The FCC should waive its E-rate rules and provide significant funding for eligible schools and libraries to distribute both mobile hotspots and WiFi enabled devices to low-income elementary and secondary school students,” she said.