The Advocate May 2021: Bring On the Broadband: Connectivity Post-COVID

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The Advocate May 2021: Bring On the Broadband: Connectivity Post-COVID

The homework gap is/was perhaps one of education’s worst-kept secrets, a phenomenon by which nearly 12 million students were routinely unable to complete school assignments at home because of inadequate or non-existent access to broadband. The issue was blown wide open in the wake of the COVID pandemic: as schools shuttered and moved online, millions of students were unable to even access—let alone engage in—remote learning.

As the pandemic wore on and Congress negotiated a flurry of emergency supplemental bills, a bipartisan agreement on support for the homework gap quickly emerged, but wasn’t able to get over the finish line until the 6th and most recent package, the American Relief Plan (ARP). We’ll use this month’s article to talk about that funding, and a related program in the December 2020 package (CARES II) that provides support to families, helping them afford internet in their homes.

The Emergency Broadband Connectivity Fund is a $3.2 billion fund that will be administered by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The FCC will use the fund to establish an Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) program, that will help low income families receive a discount off the cost of broadband service and certain connected devices. Details on the EBB started to roll out the first week of May, and eligible households will be able to enroll in the EBB to receive a monthly discount off the cost of broadband service provided by an approved provider. USA Today has a good write up on who qualifies, and you can visit the Get Emergency Broadband website for more information on how to get the benefit. More details here.

The big win, though, was final inclusion of the funding dedicated to school and student access, the more than $7 billion in funding to address the homework gap within the ARP. The $7 billion will go to the FCC for the creation of the Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF), which can be used to be for high-speed internet and devices used off campus. The funding will be distributed through the FCC’s E-Rate program, which has helped schools and libraries access affordable internet access for more than 20 years. Schools will be able to purchase wi-fi hotspots, modems and routers for students, and to fund the internet service those devices use. The FCC has released its proposed rules on how the program will be structured, and at this point it is anticipated school districts will be able to start applying as early as late May, but more likely in June. Districts can expect to receive funds for approved applications slightly ahead of the start of the 2021-22 school year (in late August). 

In terms of what to expect in accessing the funds, the initial rule from the FCC includes many of the things AASA was supporting, including:

  • Distribute support from the ECF via an application--based program where school and library applicants submit eligible service and equipment requests to support connecting to the Internet those students and patrons that lack any or sufficient Internet access in their homes or dwelling places, a device suitable for remote learning, or both;
  • (If demand outpaces available funding) Use the existing E-Rate discount matrix to rank funding requests, with applicants possessing the highest E-Rate discount rate receiving priority; 
  • Adopt program metrics and goals focused on progress towards ensuring that all students and educators are: a) able to connect at internet speeds sufficient to engage in remote learning; 
  • Allow schools, libraries, states, and consortia of schools and libraries eligible for support under the E-Rate program to be eligible to receive funding from the Emergency Connectivity Fund; it does NOT expand eligibility to other non-profit entities that serve homeless, transitory and migrant students;
  • Allow the ECF to only support: eligible services and equipment “that are needed to provide the connectivity required to enable and support remote learning for students, school staff, and library patrons,” and devices suitable for remote learning and video conferencing platforms; 
  • Provide reimbursements for eligible equipment and services back July 1, 2020; and 
  • Waive the competitive bidding process rules but not establish an alternative streamlined competitive bidding process.

AASA is closely tracking the homework gap fund and application process and will continue to provide updates.


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