More than 15 million public school students lacked home internet access or a connected device amid forced virtual learning last year. As one way to bridge the digital divide, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted final rules to implement the Emergency Connectivity Fund Program to allow school buses access to funding.
Funded by the American Rescue Plan, the FCC established the $7.17 billion Emergency Connectivity Fund Program to provide funding for schools and libraries for connected devices and broadband technology. It also announced on May 10 that school districts can use the funds normally allocated to building and library internet connectivity to also support the purchase of Wi-Fi hotspots for school buses and bookmobiles to provide off-campus broadband services to students.
School districts can apply for a maximum of $250 per Wi-Fi hotspot, as well as $400 per connected device. There was no detail provided on exactly how much of the funds could be allocated to school buses. Other eligible uses of funds include remote learning programs, cybersecurity and private networks.
For other types of eligible equipment, including modems and routers, the FCC stated it does not have a sufficient record to determine a reasonable maximum support amount. Instead, it has directed the Universal Service Administrative Company to review each request and identify applications that out of line with the funding requests of other applicants. Applicants are to be prepared to explain their selections and costs, as needed, to be eligible for 100 percent reimbursement, the FCC stated.
“During the height of the pandemic, many school transportation departments used their school buses to deliver food, instructional materials, and Wi-Fi access to students in need,” commented Michael Flood, the senior vice-president, and general manager of education for Wi-Fi company Kajeet. “FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel has long championed the ability to expand broadband access to students with Wi-Fi on school buses. Including school-bus Wi-Fi as a 100-percent reimbursable expense in the FCC’s Emergency Connectivity Program is an important step in recognizing that school buses are a school asset in expanding education broadband and closing the homework gap.”
The first application window allows for funding requests to address purchases made between July 1, 2021, and June 30, 2022, which also aligns with the coming school year and the E-Rate funding year.
If there are remaining funds after the first round of applications, the FCC will open a second window, during which schools and libraries can seek funding for eligible equipment and purchases already made between March 1, 2020, to June 30, 2021, to address the needs of staff and students during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Longterm, school buses remain ineligible for the E-Rate program, which federally funds internet connectivity in school buildings and libraries. But Sen. Ben Ray Luján, the chair of the Subcommittee on Communications, Media and Broadband, and several other congressional members aim to change that. They introduced the latest bill in March to bridge the digital divide and homework gap. The bill calls on E-Rate support for school bus Wi-Fi and would expand eligibility for the FCC E-Rate program to reimburse schools that equip school buses with Wi-Fi technology. Currently, the E-Rate program only applies to libraries and schools.
“As school buses return to their routes and many student riders return to long bus rides, Wi-Fi on school buses will continue in this role and eligibility under E-Rate should likewise continue beyond [the Emergency Connectivity Fund] and into the ongoing E-Rate program,” added Flood, who is also a former member of the board of directors for the Consortium for School Networking. Flood ended his final term on CoSN’s board last month.
The bill remains in the Senate at this writing.
Flood added that legislation has been introduced in each session of Congress for the last several years, but with no movement.
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