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FCC Chairwoman Proposes New K-12 Cybersecurity Funding

The proposal would create a new pilot program, allotting up to $200 million over three years, for schools and libraries to assess effective cybersecurity methods and implement advanced firewalls, among other needs.

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Federal Communications Commission Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel unveiled plans this week to increase funding to meet the cybersecurity needs of K-12 schools and libraries.

According to a news release from the FCC, Rosenworcel asked other commissioners to support the new proposal, which would represent a next step in her recently launched Learn Without Limits initiative to modernize and expand the FCC’s E-rate program that funds Internet services for schools and libraries. The new proposal would create a pilot program for schools and libraries to apply for up to $200 million over three years to protect their networks and implement advanced firewalls, among other cybersecurity needs.

“With the growing number of sophisticated cyber attacks on schools and especially the rise in malicious ransomware attacks that harm our students, now is the time to take action,” FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in a public statement. “We’re proposing a significant investment of up to $200 million over three years to harden the cyber defenses and determine the most effective methods to protect our schools and libraries. Our pilot program will work in tandem with federal agency partners that have deep expertise in this area.”

The announcement said the commission would establish the pilot program within the Universal Service Fund, separate from the E-rate program. It noted the program will require a full vote from the commission, with the text of the proposal to be released upon their adoption.

The proposal has so far been met with support by the Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition, which filed several comments this month about the need to increase FCC funding for K-12 cybersecurity and held meetings with the FCC to discuss the issue. The SHLB Coalition also urged the FCC not to limit funding to certain types of cybersecurity defenses, asking that the definition of permitted expenses be broad enough to cover new technologies, both on-prem and cloud-based.

“The SHLB Coalition applauds the FCC chairwoman for proposing to protect schools and libraries from increasing cyber attacks on their networks,” John Windhausen Jr., executive director of the SHLB Coalition, said in a public statement. “Cyber criminals have increased their attacks on schools and libraries over the last few years, and the FBI has recognized that these public networks are at risk. In our view, protecting the integrity of school and library networks is exactly what the E-rate fund is meant to address, so we are interested in learning more about how the pilot program will work within the Universal Service Fund.”

In an announcement Wednesday, the ed-tech advocacy group Consortium for School Networking lauded the proposal as “a powerful first step toward comprehensively modernizing the program’s cybersecurity provisions.”

“Closing the K-12 cybersecurity gap must be a higher national priority so that all schools — especially those serving our most vulnerable communities — have the means and knowledge to defend themselves from the relentless cyber attacks that daily threaten student and teacher data,” CoSN’s statement said.