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ALA Seeks E-rate Funding for Wi-Fi Hotspot Lending 

by Megan Janicki, Deputy Director, Strategic Initiatives · American Library Association on January 10, 2024

At ALA’s Annual Conference in Chicago this year, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel took the stage to announce the Learn Without Limits initiative. Learn Without Limits is a three-prong approach to provide sustainable, flexible connectivity solutions to libraries and schools and the communities they serve. As part of this initiative, the Chairwoman proposed changes to the E-rate program, adding hotspots as an eligible service “so that (public) libraries, school libraries, and schools can check them out to patrons or students in need.” ALA applauds the FCC for acknowledging the changing shape of education and the need to adapt our technologies and systems accordingly.  

In early December, the FCC released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) seeking to make the off-campus Wi-Fi hotspot service eligible for E-rate program discounts. This rulemaking seeks to build upon the successes of the COVID-era Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF) and secure sustainable funding for library Wi-Fi hotspot lending. Chairwoman Rosenworcel noted that: “with ECF support, more than 6,800 schools and libraries were able to provide Wi-Fi hotspots to support broadband connectivity for nearly 1.2 million students, school staff, and library patrons who otherwise lacked internet access services suitable for remote learning.”ii The ECF sunsets in June 2024. 

The ALA is actively reviewing the FCC’s NPRM and preparing to submit a comprehensive response. Our goal is to ensure that the final rules are implemented in a way that maximizes the benefits for libraries of all sizes and the diverse communities they serve. 

Some of the key issues ALA will address in its response include: 

  • The success of hotspot lending programs in libraries: Libraries across the country have already developed Wi-Fi hotspot lending programs that benefit their patrons with flexibility and access. Students who stay with different caregivers throughout the week, unhoused individuals, and households with multiple users and limited broadband capacity represent just a few of the diverse needs and uses that hotspot lending support.  
  • Digital equity, diversity, inclusion, and access: Libraries are committed to providing equity in access and inclusive services for all members of their communities. As we consider the rulemaking, we will advocate to strengthen access for vulnerable and marginalized populations. Wi-Fi hotspots provide flexible access to the internet for individuals who may not have a fixed address, or to households with multiple internet users who require additional bandwidth.  
  • Product and service eligibility: ALA will advocate for clear and concise guidelines regarding the types of Wi-Fi hotspots and services that will be eligible for E-rate funding, with a flexible, technology-neutral approach.  
  • Library patron privacy: We ask that the Commission acknowledge the issue of library patron privacy laws in the final E-rate rules. Libraries are committed to protecting personally identifiable information, and burdensome recordkeeping of sensitive information is contrary to the library ethos.  
  • Filtering: The Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) requires that school and library computers are filtered to protect young people from sensitive content. However, CIPA filtering should not apply to Wi-Fi hotspots which are intended to be used with patron-owned devices, not on the library premises. This has been our position with the ECF program, as well.  

Libraries have always played a critical role in bridging the digital divide by providing internet access to the public. However, traditional library Wi-Fi networks are limited to the physical boundaries of the building, leaving many patrons without access outside of library hours. The FCC’s proposed expansion of E-rate eligibility to include Wi-Fi hotspots represents a significant step forward in closing the digital divide and ensuring that all Americans have access to the internet. ALA is committed to working with the FCC and other stakeholders to make this proposal a reality. 

ALA encourages all library professionals and stakeholders to learn more about the FCC’s NPRM and take action by contacting Megan Janicki (mjanicki@alawash.org) at the Public Policy and Advocacy office to share your stories and input. Your voice can help shape the future of the E-rate program and ensure that libraries have the resources they need to provide equitable access to the internet for all.