Thursday, October 28, 2021
Congress took a significant step toward solving the digital divide when it created the Emergency Connectivity Fund in the spring of 2021, appropriating over $7 billion for schools and libraries to connect learners to broadband off campus.
The Federal Communications Commission has been dispersing this pot of money at an impressive pace. As of this writing, over 60 percent of the Emergency Connectivity Fund applications filed in the initial June to August window have been processed, with the FCC approving $2.6 billion in funding. In addition to tackling the remaining applications submitted over the summer, the FCC is now processing $1.3 billion in requests from a second filing window that closed in mid-October. We expect the FCC to complete its decision-making early next year, which should give applicants time to spend their funds before the deadline of June 30, 2022.
But beyond the FCC’s speedy application processing, what are we to make of the program so far? Interviews with nearly a dozen Emergency Connectivity Fund applicants reveal that, while there is room for improvement, the program as a whole seems to be working. The FCC has approved applications both large and small in almost every state in the country. The grants range from a huge award of $12 million for 20,000 laptops and 22,000 connections to students of Baltimore City Schools, to an award of roughly $587,000 to the Wapato School District in central Washington to cover hotspots and tablets for a community on the edge of the Yakama Indian reservation.
Most approved applications focused on hotspots and devices, often benefiting from state master contracts that keep prices low. Despite supply chain problems that limited the shipment of hotspots last year, procurement of this equipment has been relatively easy. Many schools and libraries received their hotspots within a couple of months after ordering them, and have already begun placing them with students and families in need. Still other schools and libraries have been approved to purchase hotspots on school buses and park them in communities lacking internet access. Schools and libraries are also receiving support for devices such as laptops and tablets, which Funds For Learning estimates were requested by about 70 percent applications in the first filing window.
Despite the Emergency Connectivity Fund’s apparent success, the FCC still needs to iron out some wrinkles. Only about a quarter of current E-rate participants applied for this funding, even though the program is open to most E-rate recipients. Unfortunately, many libraries and some schools were also discouraged from applying because of the FCC’s onerous record retention requirements. The fear of future audits chilled enthusiasm as well.
Curiously, some of the most innovative Emergency Connectivity Fund applications have not yet been funded, or have been denied. For example:
- Pending Approval: A library in rural San Benito, California, hopes to purchase 10,000 Chromebooks for its patrons, including migrant farm workers and their families. The library also hopes to self-provision a network based on a fixed point-to-point signal combined with Wi-Fi access to connect households where there is no other commercial broadband provider.
- Pending Approval: The remote Eastern Shore Public Library aims to loan hotspots, iPads, and Chromebooks by partnering with nonprofit organizations that serve vulnerable populations, including those with disabilities, older adults, and survivors of domestic violence. Since these nonprofit partners work directly with individuals who lack internet access, this nonprofit connectivity should satisfy the unmet need requirement without asking library patrons to surrender their privacy.
- Denied: The East Baton Rouge Parish Library proposed to place multi-use hotspots in community parks and public housing developments. The legislation that authorized the Emergency Connectivity Fund specifically allows funding for connections outside of the school or library building, so it’s unclear why the library’s request was denied.
Despite the prevalence of hotspot requests from Emergency Connectivity Fund applicants, hotspots have some weaknesses. Several rural school and library leaders report that hotspots do not work in their areas because the cellphone signal is not strong enough. Furthermore, the value of hotspot lending services may be curtailed by limited data caps because the FCC rules do not require service to be unlimited. For this reason, many communities submitted applications to promote alternatives to hot spots, such as private LTE and other wireless solutions. The FCC could do some communities a world of good by authorizing schools and libraries to pursue these innovative and cost-effective solutions.
Congress and the FCC have the potential to multiply the impact of the Emergency Connectivity Fund in the upcoming Build Back Better legislation. First and foremost, Congress should provide additional funding to sustain the program beyond the current school year, because remote learning won’t leave us any time soon. And just as importantly, the FCC should eliminate barriers to Emergency Connectivity Fund participation, as these challenges have prevented participation from the schools and libraries whose communities would benefit the most from support. Finally, we urge Congress and the FCC to allow schools and libraries to execute innovative connectivity solutions to connect the maximum number of school children and library patrons at the lowest possible cost.
John Windhausen Jr. is the executive director of the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition. Regarded as the leading champion for anchor institution broadband, Windhausen founded the SHLB Coalition in 2009 to pursue the goal of gigabit connectivity for every anchor in the country.
Alicja Johnson is the communications manager for the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition, where she works to highlight community anchor institution connectivity needs.
The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy – rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity – has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.
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