A potential solution to the so-called “homework gap” – otherwise known as the limited ability of low-income students in rural or underserved areas to access a broadband connection at home – is the subject of a petition submitted to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC or Commission) by an innovative public-private partnership and is now open for public comment.

The petition, submitted jointly by Microsoft Corporation, Mid-Atlantic Broadband Communities Corporation (MBC), Charlotte County Public Schools, Halifax County Public Schools, GCR Company and Kinex Telecom, requests clarification as to whether Commission rules will allow use of TV white spaces (TVWS) to extend E-Rate supported broadband services to the homes of 3,500 eligible students. Because TVWS frequencies are available on an unlicensed basis, use of the technology to extend internet access services would not impose additional costs on the E-Rate program. The petition seeks an FCC ruling that use of TVWS to facilitate off-campus use of E-Rate supported internet access services is permissible and does not affect the eligibility of supported services provided on the campus. Comments are due November 3 with reply comments due December 5.

Should the Commission find that the rules do not permit such off-campus use of E-Rate supported internet access services, Petitioners are asking the Commission to waive its rules and allow the partnership to conduct a limited pilot program, which if successful, could be replicated across the country in areas where students do not have broadband access at home.

According to a Pew Research Center analysis of data from the 2013 Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, roughly 5 million homes with school-age children do not have high-speed internet service. Low-income households with minorities contribute to a disproportionate share of that 5 million. The Commission’s 2016 Broadband Progress Report finds that 10% of the country’s population lacks a broadband connection at home. This lack of a broadband connection at home is the central concern that Commissioner Rosenworcel dubbed the “homework gap.”

Does Off-Campus Use Serve an Educational Purpose?

The petition presents a unique issue, stating that neither the Commission’s rules nor the Eligible Services List (ESL) either expressly contemplates or forbids off-campus use of E-Rate supported services. Part of the challenge is that the current E-Rate rules require participating schools to certify that supported services are being used for educational purposes with a presumption that activities occurring on schools grounds serve an educational purpose. However, off-campus use does not have such a presumption. The petition seeks clarification as to whether off-campus use is permitted. At the same time, the ESL prohibits off-campus wireless service, but the TVWS technology uses an on-premises internet connection rather than a cellular network. The partnership does not believe that the ESL even addresses such a scenario and seeks Commission clarification that such use in not prohibited.

How Would TVWS Connect Students at Home?

According to the petition, Microsoft is developing a custom, in-home TVWS access point with Dynamic Spectrum Access technology to operate on the available radio spectrum, including unused or unassigned TV broadcast channels in the VHF and UHF television bands. MBC would install these base stations at select schools to extend the reach of broadband access to the eligible students’ homes. Students would connect using another TVWS access point that converts the TVWS signal to Wi-Fi. This will allow Wi-Fi enabled devices in the home to connect to the network.

The Cost

The petition claims that the effort will not impose any new financial burden on the E-Rate fund. They estimate an initial capital budget of $1.1 to $1.4 million, depending on final design and coverage areas, with funding from state grants and project partners. MBC will incur costs for increased usage without increasing the costs to the schools. Microsoft will provide the equipment necessary to transmit the signal from the school to the homes. Both Microsoft and the schools will gather data and evaluate the program’s effectiveness.

Building Momentum from Past Efforts to Efforts to Bridge the “Homework Gap”

This is not the first effort to address the “homework gap,” but it is novel approach to use TV White Spaces to extend broadband use from the school to the home. FCC Commissioners Rosenworcel and Clyburn have raised the issue during the second E-Rate modernization proceeding, and just this week, Commissioner Rosenworcel noted in her remarks at NATOA that “local solutions deserve federal support.” Just a few months ago, the FCC approved the Lifeline Reform Order, expanding the Lifeline discounts to include broadband services whilst trying to address the “homework gap” by enabling students to complete their online assignments at home.

The Administration has also made inroads in bridging the “homework gap.” ConnectHome, a public private partnership between service providers and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, brings broadband access to public housing communities through commitments from service providers. The program remains active with AT&T as the most recent provider to participate. HUD is in the process of evaluating the program’s success.

The proposal before the Commission builds on the momentum and harnesses the power of technological innovation and public private partnerships. The partnership is a coalition of a federal broadband grant recipient under the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, two school districts, and three private companies. Both the FCC and Administration have been pushing for public-private partnerships in the broadband space through ConnectED and ConnectHome, and this petition is a prime example of such a partnership. The fact that the Commission put the petition on Public Notice for comment signals more interest from the Commission in hearing from interested parties.

FCC Also Seeks Comments on Waiver of Cost Allocation Rules

In addition to the TVWS Petition, the FCC is also seeking comment on a request filed by the Boulder Valley School District (Boulder) seeking a waiver of the cost allocation rules, Section 54.504(e), to allow school districts to provide internet access to students at home using E-Rate funded broadband networks. Such use would be limited to students without current broadband access at home and where such use does not impose an additional cost burden to the Universal Service Fund.

According to the request, if a local housing authority or other entity covers the cost of the equipment to connect the school district’s network to students in low-income housing, the school districts can cover the costs of providing internet service to such students at no additional cost to the E-Rate fund. Boulder suggests that Commission rules discourage off-campus use of E-Rate supported services, requiring schools to cost allocate the off-campus portion of the services used. However, such allocation would lead to school districts incurring additional costs in trying to determine how much of the service benefits students at home. The Commission seeks comment on Boulder’s request to waive the cost allocation rules.

Given the novel questions at issue in both petitions, we urge interested parties to share their thoughts and input with the Commission as it evaluates no to low cost mechanisms to help address the “homework gap.”