The new bill would provide student vouchers for internet access.

The new bill would provide student vouchers for internet access.

A new House bill seeks to overhaul the e-Rate, which provides telecommunications discounts to eligible schools and libraries, to make it a more useful tool in the federal government’s National Broadband Plan.

Introduced Feb. 9 by Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and co-sponsored by Reps. Lois Capps and Doris Matsui, both California Democrats, the “e-Rate 2.0 Act of 2010” (H.R. 4619) would allow the e-Rate to help bridge the digital divide in students’ homes, fund electronic books in schools, and adjust its coverage for inflation. Under Markey’s proposal, Head Start programs and even community colleges would be eligible for some funding.

“This critical bill will help narrow the digital divide by increasing the range of the latest telecommunication services and devices accessible to low-income students, including residential broadband services and eBooks incorporated into students’ classroom lessons,” said Markey in a statement. “The original e-Rate bill that I [co-] authored has largely fulfilled its mission of linking up schools to the web. The fact that only 14 percent of K-12 classrooms had internet access at the time the 1996 bill was enacted, compared to more than 95 percent today, is a testament to that success. Now, with the expansion of the scope of technology, students need more than just web access at school, and our e-Rate 2.0 bill is intended to reflect those expanded needs.”

Bridging the divide

The bill would create a pilot program that would allow funding in the form of vouchers to eligible students from low-income families. The vouchers would be used to offset monthly service fees for home broadband service.

To be eligible, students would need to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, attend secondary schools that receive support under the e-Rate program, and already have a computer at home.

The program calls for up to $500 million per year in funding for this pilot program, which would be in effect for five years.