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FCC Announces New Program, Guidelines for School Broadband

The Federal Communications Commission has announced rules for its new Emergency Connectivity Fund, which will distribute $7.17 billion announced earlier this year for school broadband and devices.

A word cloud featuring the words "digital divide" and related terms.
The Federal Communications Commission this week released the guidelines for its new Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF), which will use $7.1 billion approved earlier this year to assist schools and libraries in connecting students to broadband Internet for remote and hybrid learning.

Though the funding has been lauded as a step toward closing the digital divide, ed-tech policy advocates from the Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition said its current regulations still leave much to be desired in terms of flexibility for schools seeking to apply for the program.

“The SHLB Coalition congratulates the FCC for moving quickly to establish the Emergency Connectivity Fund. The shift in focus to prospective funding provides clear evidence of the commission’s commitment to ensuring students and library patrons have affordable broadband access going forward,” John Windhausen, SHLB executive director, said in a news release.

“Unfortunately, the ECF program rules do not give schools and libraries as much flexibility as they deserve to implement creative and cost-effective solutions to reduce the digital divide in their communities. Nonetheless, the FCC’s order makes great progress in making affordable broadband available to everyone, and the SHLB Coalition remains dedicated to ensuring the program’s success.”

Prior to this year, ed-tech advocacy groups such as the SHLB and Consortium for School Networking had been pushing for more FCC funding geared toward student connectivity. It arrived in March, in the form of $7.17 billion in President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan earmarked for broadband, Wi-Fi hot spots and devices. Widely assumed to be part of the E-rate program, which has been funding telecommunication services for schools and libraries since 1997, a fact sheet released by the FCC clarified that the new ECF is a separate initiative.

The SHLB made several recommendations to policymakers prior to the introduction of the new program, including that the FCC should avoid “excessive regulation of school and library purchasing decisions” so they could make their own choices about which services and equipment they need. The coalition also recommended broadening the scope of devices available to meet each district’s needs.

SHLB spokesperson Alicja Johnson said original FCC funding proposals included two separate filing windows in which schools could apply, with the first designated for reimbursement of funds spent on closing the digital divide during the pandemic, and the second going toward future prospective spending. While the filing process was flipped to prioritize future spending, Johnson said it could have been streamlined into one application window.

“We think that it would have been better to have a single filing window for prospective and retroactive reimbursement,” she said. “We could’ve been better on that.”

Johnson said the funding mainly covers cable modems and wireless routers provided by existing service providers, but does not allow funding for services such as CBRS (Citizens Broadband Radio Service), which could be more cost-effective and deployed more rapidly. The program does include exceptions for such funding for schools without any network service provider, but Johnson said those recipients would have to go through “a lot of hoops” to make their case to the FCC, which could ultimately discourage entities from pursuing the funding altogether.

“Schools and libraries really know the types of solutions that are going to best suit their communities because, in one area, a hot spot device might be sufficient for connecting disconnecting students. In another area, a hot spot is useless just due to the available coverage,” she said. “That’s where we were hoping to see more flexibility.”
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.