Get the latest news alerts: at Twitter.


WASHINGTON — Schools that receive federal funding for their Internet connections may now allow the public to use those connections outside school hours.

The voted Thursday to let schools that get money from the federal E-Rate program offer community members use of their Internet connections.

The program, which also funds Internet access in libraries, had required schools to use the Web connections only for educational purposes. But that meant they went largely unused at night, over weekends and during breaks.

The $2.25 billion E-Rate program is part of the federal Universal Service Fund, which subsidizes communication services in poor and rural areas through a surcharge on long-distance bills.

The vote to expand use of the Web connections funded by E-Rate comes a month before the FCC is to give Congress a set of policy recommendations on how to make affordable broadband connections available to all Americans.

The broadband plan, mandated by last year’s economic stimulus bill, will propose expanding the Universal Service Fund to pay for broadband and finding more airwaves for wireless broadband services, among other things.

On Thursday, the agency outlined a series of broad goals for the plan. Those include driving economic development, producing jobs and bringing educational opportunities, smart-grid energy technology and cutting-edge medicine to all corners of the country.

The FCC also offered an early peak at some of the recommendations it will include in the plan. The plan covers:

Providing Jobs and Creating Economic Opportunity:

• Challenge: The current job training system is fragmented and difficult to expand or contract to accommodate changing demands for service.
• Solutions: Accelerate efforts to deliver employment assistance, including job training and placement services, on a scalable online platform.
• Challenge: Small businesses are less likely to use broadband to increase productivity.
• Solutions: Launch public-private partnership to expand efforts to provide technology training for small and disadvantaged businesses.

Improving healthcare and controlling costs:

• Challenge: Remote monitoring of vital signs and electronic health records could save $700 billion over 15-25 years, but the U.S. lags in health IT adoption.
• Solutions: Create conditions for broader adoption and innovation in e-care technologies; reduce regulatory barriers to increase access to care.
• Challenge: Many healthcare providers lack broadband connections or pay high prices.
• Solutions: Ensure all providers have access to affordable broadband by transforming the Rural Health Care Program to subsidize both ongoing costs and network deployment, while expanding the definition of eligible providers.

Providing More Educational Opportunities and Improving Outcomes:

• Challenge: While 97% percent of public elementary and secondary schools have Internet access, speeds are insufficient.
• Solution: Upgrade E-rate program to provide additional connectivity, flexibility and efficiency.
• Challenge: Online learning can reduce time required to learn by half and increase course completion rates, but there are barriers to wider adoption.
• Solutions: Remove regulatory barriers to online learning; increase supply of digital content and online learning systems; promote digital literacy for students and teachers.

Promoting energy independence and efficiency:

• Challenge: The intermittency of renewable power and the increased loads from electric vehicles will strain the current electric grid, unless we modernize the grid with broadband and advanced communications.
• Solutions: Ensure that broadband is integrated into the smart grid by promoting and improving commercial broadband networks, better coordinating and standardizing private utility networks, and enabling partnerships with public safety networks. A smart grid can reduce greenhouse gasses from electricity generation by up to 12% by 2030.
• Challenge: Consumers lack access to and control of their own digital energy data to understand and manage their energy use, which limits the innovation potential and energy savings of smarter homes and smarter buildings.
• Solutions: Ensure consumers have access to and privacy of real-time and historical digital energy information through changes to state and federal policies.

Enhancing government performance and Increasing Civic Engagement:

• Challenge: The government lags in adoption of Internet technologies, hindering quality of service and civic engagement.
• Solutions: Release more government data on digital platforms; enable citizen-centric online services; encourage greater use of social media.
• Challenge: Federal assets not used effectively to spur local adoption and deployment of broadband.
• Solutions: Have federal buildings serve as anchor tenants for unserved and underserved communities; encourage greater coordination in broadband grants; open federal NETWORX contract to state and local governments.

Increasing Public Safety and Homeland Security:

• Challenge: First responders lack a nationwide interoperable broadband wireless network dedicated to the provision of public safety services.
• Solutions: Enable the construction and operation of an interoperable nationwide broadband wireless public safety network with appropriate capacity and resiliency, leveraging commercial technology; creation of an Emergency Response Interoperability Center to ensure nationwide interoperability; and appropriation of grant funding for network construction, operation and evolution.
• Challenge: Transition to Next Generation 9-1-1 networks and emergency alerting is hampered by a lack of intergovernmental coordination, as well as jurisdictional, legal and funding issues.
• Solutions: Promote innovation in the development and deployment of the Next Generation of 9-1-1 networks and emergency alerting systems by fully embracing broadband technologies and ensuring that coordination, jurisdictional, legal and funding impediments are avoided.