Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Kevin Martin has proposed using $211 million from the Universal Service Fund–the pool of money that pays for eRate discounts, among other things–to help rebuild the communications infrastructure in areas damaged by Hurricane Katrina. About $132 million of this money will support schools and libraries impacted by the storm.

The money will be used for various projects, Martin said, including helping schools restore their internet connections and providing eligible evacuees with mobile phones and free phone minutes.

The FCC’s eRate program will open a new application window to allow schools and libraries in the affected areas to resubmit their requests for eRate funds for the 2005 program year. Schools and libraries affected by Hurricane Katrina will receive the eRate’s highest priority level to ensure they are eligible for the steepest discounts available, the FCC said.

To help schools and libraries rebuild from the devastation caused by the hurricane and flooding in the area, the FCC will continue to assign the highest level of eRate priority to these institutions for the 2006 funding year.

Also, schools and libraries handling increased student and patron populations caused by the influx of evacuees will be able to amend their applications for 2005 eRate support, the agency said.

Details about these initiatives were not available before press time, but school leaders should watch the web site of the Schools and Libraries Division of the Universal Service Administrative Co., the group that administers the eRate, for more information.

Through its High Cost, Low Income program, the FCC will provide support for wireless handsets and packages of 300 free minutes for Hurricane Katrina evacuees. The FCC also will help pay the costs of reconnecting consumers to the telecommunications network as the affected areas are rebuilt, according to an agency press release. The FCC is making available $51 million for these efforts and another $28 million to support rural health-care providers in the affected areas.

In addition, Martin announced plans to create a “Blue Ribbon Panel” of experts from the public safety and communications industries. The experts will perform an independent review of the impact of Hurricane Katrina. After completing its study, the panel will advise the FCC on how to improve disaster preparedness, network reliability, and public safety operations.

Martin said he also plans to create a new Public Safety/Homeland Security Bureau within the FCC. This new bureau would have responsibility for coordinating public safety, national security, and disaster management activities for the agency.

–Laura Ascione