A new ruling by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) opens the possibility for residents in remote rural areas to connect to the internet after hours using excess bandwidth from their local school or library.

In a unanimous ruling released Dec. 3, the FCC approved a petition from the state of Alaska to let its residents use excess capacity from a school’s or library’s eRate-funded internet connection—but only when the school or library is not in session, and only if this extra use doesn’t result in an extra fee.

Many schools in rural Alaskan villages that are reachable only by air or water depend on satellite telecommunications for their internet access. These satellite services often are provided on a “non-usage sensitive” basis, meaning schools pay a set fee for unlimited use of the service. Once school lets out for the day, however, this service goes unused.

Alaska has 135 communities with such “non-usage sensitive” connections, according to state figures.

Most of these communities use eRate discounts to pay for the satellite hook-ups in their schools and libraries. On average, Alaska’s schools receive about $12 million annually from the program.

Current eRate rules require participants to certify that services obtained through the program are used for educational purposes only. However, the FCC said it can waive its rules if special circumstances warrant the exception and if it serves the public interest.

In response to a petition from Alaska state officials, the FCC determined that it was appropriate to waive this rule for Alaska, providing certain conditions were met.

The FCC order says schools and libraries can’t charge the eRate program for any additional costs associated with providing internet access to residents’ homes. In addition, access to the school’s link is allowed only after school or library hours, and only in communities where there is no local or toll-free dial-up internet access available.

“We believe that these conditions are appropriately tailored to narrow the scope of the waiver to ensure the integrity of the [eRate program], yet broad enough to provide relief to rural remote communities in Alaska,” the FCC said. “We also conclude that granting Alaska’s waiver will serve the public interest.”

Alaska has approximately 240 sparsely populated communities that don’t have local or toll-free dial-up internet access because they are so isolated by both weather and terrain, Alaska told the FCC in its petition. Instead, residents in these isolated communities must make a long-distance call to get online.

That figure has dropped somewhat in the meantime, probably to around 200 villages, said John Greely, a special assistant to Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer, who leads the state Telecommunications Information Council. A study by the Denali Commission earlier this year put the number of villages without local internet connections at 164.

In a statement, Ulmer said he was pleased with FCC’s decision because it would help narrow the digital divide in his state.

“Allowing Alaskans in remote communities without toll-free dial-up service to piggy-back on the internet access that is already available in schools is a win-win situation for all of us in terms of distance learning, economic development, and communication between Alaska’s many regions,” Ulmer said.

Ulmer, who serves as a member of the FCC’s Local and State Government Advisory Committee, said internet service providers will have to pay for any additional equipment needed to deliver the service to residents’ homes.

Norris Dickard, a senior associate at the Benton Foundation, said he agrees wholeheartedly with the FCC’s decision.

“As is common in many rural areas, the school is the center of the community,” Dickard said. “Residents of Alaska will be able to take advantage of the unused telecommunications capacity that the eRate has made possible, without the restriction that [this capacity] be used solely for education.”

Dickard said it’s important to note that this ruling is related to satellite services and how they often are provided on a non-usage basis, which is a special case.

But “I think more states and districts may be looking at how the broader community can take advantage, through schools and libraries, of the telecommunications services the eRate has made possible,” he said. “The Alaska case could open the door to other such efforts, which—if as carefully considered and narrowly tailored as this ruling—could be highly beneficial.”

The Alaska Telephone Association urged the FCC not to grant the exemption, saying there were better ways to solve the challenge without hurting the long-term growth potential of private internet service companies in rural Alaska and that its members were working on a system that would bring broadband and internet service to all villages with more than 25 residents.

Related links:
Federal Communcations Commission
http://www.fcc.gov

FCC ruling
http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/FCC-01-350A1.doc

State of Alaska
http://www.state.ak.us