Limited non-educational use of E-Rate-subsidized services OK’d temporarily with strings attached, as FCC considers making change permanent

For more than a decade schools and libraries have been eligible, under the E-Rate program, for discounts on a number of telecommunications services, Internet access, internal connections and related maintenance.  The idea has been to promote the availability of affordable Internet connections for educational purposes. And to assure that the program is used for that focused goal, the FCC’s rules governing the E-Rate program have flatly prohibited schools from allowing E-Rate-subsidized facilities to be used for anything other than educational activities.

But now the Commission has loosened that prohibition, at least temporarily: through June 30, 2011, E-Rate-subsidized service in schools may be made available for use by the general community when school is not in session, as long as the cost to the government is not increased and the public is not charged for the Internet access. In the meantime, the FCC has invited comments on whether to make that change permanent.

Since the inception of the E-Rate program, subsidized service at schools could be used only for “educational purposes”. That means students and faculty may use the service at any time, but the general public may never do so. The result is that school computers are often idle at night, on weekends or during school breaks, when they could be put to use by adults who cannot afford broadband service at home or who live in geographic areas where broadband is not readily available. In the current difficult economic circumstances, Internet access could be used to apply for jobs, fill out government forms, and the like.

The FCC gets the point, so on its own motion it has declared that, from now through June 30, 2011, schools may choose to allow members of the community at large to use school equipment and Internet access when students are not around. But to assure that those facilities continue to be primarily dedicated to education, the FCC has attached strings:

  • Non-educational use is restricted to times when school is not in session (including evenings, weekends, holidays, and vacations);
  • Expanded use will not justify any additional funding beyond what is needed for strictly educational purposes; and
  • The public may not be charged for Internet access (although reasonable charges may be imposed to pay for extra heat, light, security, and similar increased costs). 

The FCC says it will be diligent in scrutinizing funding applications, and especially amendments to pending applications, to make sure that no effort is made to sneak in requests to fund anything other than educational use by students and faculty.

Expanding the universe of users raises the question of whether mandatory filters to protect children from “inappropriate content” – obscenity, child pornography, other material that would be “harmful to minors” – should be removable when adults use the Internet access. The FCC will leave that decision up to individual schools.

While the Commission has made this relaxation effective only through June, 2011, it has at the same time proposed to amend its rules to make the relaxation permanent. That would be accomplished simply by a regulatory specification that E-Rate-subsidized facilities will be used “primarily”, rather than “solely”, for educational purposes. Comments on that proposed change will be due 30 days after the proposal is published in the Federal Register

In the meantime, the temporary relaxation is effective immediately.