Still Facing a Digital Divide? The FCC Can Help.

Educators couldn’t miss the headlines about the additional $122 billion allocated for ESSER in the American Rescue Plan (ARP), signed into law in March. But there was another boon for education in the ARP that you may not have heard about: the Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF).

Administered through the Universal Service Administrative Company of the FCC, the ECF is targeted to provide broadband internet service and equipment to support remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. This new funding source, totaling $7.1 billion, will be distributed through the federal E-Rate program. Schools, libraries, and consortia of schools and libraries that are eligible for support under E-Rate can request and receive funding through this program.

The focus of the ECF is connectivity for remote learning. The FCC lists the following types of equipment that can be purchased for off-campus use by students, school staff, and library patrons:

  • Laptop and tablet computers
  • Wi-Fi hotspots
  • Modems (including air cards)
  • Routers
  • Devices that combine a modem and router

Schools and libraries can also use the funding for mobile or fixed broadband connections for off-campus use by students, school staff, or library patrons. The full list of eligible items is available from the FCC.

Better, But Still “Under-Connected”

A recent study by Rutgers University shows that home internet service is much more widespread now, likely getting a boost from the flurry of device purchases and connectivity arrangements made at the beginning of the pandemic. 

Rutgers found that among families with children ages 6 to 13, access to non-dial-up home internet service has increased from 64 percent in 2015 to 84 percent in 2021. Additionally, among families with six- to 13-year-olds, 91 percent now have a computer at home.

While this is surely progress to be celebrated, many families with home internet service are still “under-connected” or struggling with make-work arrangements. 56 percent say their service is too slow. For those using mobile for connectivity, 34 percent say they hit the data limits in their plan at least once in the past year. Just having a computer at home isn’t always enough. 59 percent say it does not work properly or runs too slowly, and 22 percent say it is hard to get time on it because there are too many people sharing it.

Clearly, there is still a ways to go to achieve universal access for remote learners. This is especially true for under-served populations of students. Rutgers found that the proportion of lower-income families who are under-connected hardly changed at all between 2015 and 2021—despite the large increases in rates of home broadband and computer access.

As schools act to come closer to true connectivity for all students, it’s good to know there are funds specifically set aside for this purpose.

While it’s true that purchasing education technology is one of the allowable uses for ARP ESSER funds, with so many other competing allowable uses, having $7.1 billion directly targeted for connectivity will help ensure these issues get the attention and funding they need to bring all students to a fully connected state.

Per the FCC, the initial ECF Program application filing window opened on June 29 and will close on August 13. During the application filing window, requests can be submitted for funding to purchase eligible equipment and services between July 1, 2021, and June 30, 2022.

Do you provide education technology? Make sure your customers know that this fund exists and that they won’t have to compete for ESSER funds to access dollars for devices or connectivity to close the digital divide for good.