FCC Proposes to Make Hot Spots E-rate Eligible

November 13, 2023

Last week, the FCC released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) that proposes to make Wi-Fi hotspots and related mobile broadband services eligible for E-rate for students, teachers and library patrons who otherwise would not have Internet access off campus.   The FCC is seeking comments on this proposal, as well as more than 140 implementation-related questions.  I’ve tried to summarize below the main concepts of their 53-page proposal and where I think the FCC may be headed.

  • Timing:  The comment cycle has yet to be established, but we expect comments will be due mid-December, with reply comments due two weeks later.  After that, the FCC will review comments and release an Order with complete program eligibility and details.  I would be surprised to see a final Order before mid-January 2024.
  • Funding Year:  The proposal does not explicitly state that hotspots/mobile Internet will be eligible beginning in Funding Year 2024, but with the Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF) program sunsetting June 30, 2024, I expect the FCC will try very hard to ensure there is no gap between programs.  In fact, the NPRM asks whether they should limit initial eligibility to just services (no hotspots) or similarly, just the services associated with the hotspots purchased using ECF program funds.  Because of the late-nature of the NPRM release, this may be where the FCC is headed for FY 2024.
  • Equipment/Service Eligibility:  The proposal closely mirrors the ECF hotspots and related internet services eligibility.  One per user, no cellular phones, no multi-user hotspots.  However, unlike ECF, hotspots would be subject to E-rate discounts.
  • Eligible Users:  Students, teachers and library patrons who otherwise lack internet access outside of the school or library will be eligible, but not including Head Start and Pre-K students.  Unlike ECF, the FCC appears they may be considering a financial hardship component such as a student’s participation in NSLP, in addition to whether the user just lacks Internet access (has an unmet need).  Also, the FCC appears to want more than an estimate of how many users will have an unmet needs when they submit their For 471s; they are considering requiring schools and libraries to conduct and submit as part of their funding requests their survey results or other documentation that substantiates their student and school staff, or patron population with current unmet needs.
  • Bidding:  There are no specific bidding rules proposed, but they do ask numerous bidding and cost containment-related questions.  For example, should a per plan cap be adopted to ensure a service is cost effective.
  • Usage Documentation:  The FCC appears to be very serious about ensuring that any E-rate-funded off-campus mobile broadband services are actually used.  They propose that service providers must provide the school or library with notice if a user has not used the service within the last 30 days, and prohibit E-rate reimbursements for any service plans that were not used.  They seek comment on how to avoid having E-rate pay for hotspot service during the summer months.
  • Documentation:  Just like ECF, it appears that for each hotspot purchased with E-rate support, a school or library must maintain the device make/model, the device serial number, the name of the person to whom the device was provided, and the dates the device was loaned out and returned to the school or library.  For hot spot services, the school or library’s inventory must include the type of service provided, the broadband plan details (i.e., upload and download speeds and the monthly data cap), and the name of the person to whom the service was provided.
  • Audits:  The program will be subject to the current E-rate audit program and reviews, and the FCC is considering increasing the number and frequency of random or targeted audit of these services in order to detect and prevent unused hotspots and services or where they are not being used for educational purposes.
  • Duplicative Funding:  The FCC wants to ensure that families receiving federal Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) funding for Internet to the home will not also have access to an E-rate-funded hotspot/service.
  • CIPA:  The proposal seeks comment on the applicability of the Children‘s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) requirements and the off-premises use of E-Rate-supported hotspots and services.

If you would like to submit comments to any of the questions/proposals in the NPRM and need assistance with your submission, please let me know.  As I learn more about this initiative, I’ll send details to the listserve.

– Julie

Julie Tritt Schell
Pennsylvania E-rate Coordinator
717-730-7133 – o

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