Time is running out for school districts to file applications for the Federal Communication Commission’s $7.17 billion Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF) to install Wi-Fi hotspot equipment on school buses. Industry experts are urging school districts to not let this opportunity pass, despite a new possibility that funds could be extended.
The grants are part of the federal E-Rate Support for School Bus Wi-Fi program that makes funding available to provide internet access in schools and libraries. In May of this year, the FCC approved the installation of school bus hotspots and related equipment as an eligible expense under the ECF to counter the impact of COVID-19. School districts have until Aug. 13 to apply for the grants, which will cover 100 percent of the costs associated with school bus Wi-Fi projects undertaken from July 1 through next June 30.
The funding was also made available to narrow the digital learning divide between affluent neighborhoods and lower income and rural areas, where students have little or no access to the internet. It is also meant to give students who spend up to three hours round trip on school buses added time to study and complete homework assignments. School districts that have Wi-Fi hotspots report an increase in student achievements, a decrease in disciplinary referrals and higher driver satisfaction.
A subsequent piece of proposed legislation was introduced this month in Congress called the Securing Universal Communications Connectivity to Ensure Students Succeed (SUCCESS) Act. This proposed legislation would extend the ECF for five years providing $8 billion a year to make sure these underserved areas maintain connectivity after the initial ECF runs out of money.
“A lot of districts were asking what about after June 30, 2022,” said Michael Flood, senior vice president and general manager of education at technology company Kajeet. “The SUCCESS Act would sustain that funding.”
The Beekmantown Central School District in New York began installing Wi-Fi equipment on the district’s 40 buses six years ago. Gary Lambert, director of 21st Century Learning for Beekmantown, said that busy people sometimes suffer from “message fatigue” and procrastinate by setting tasks aside thinking they will get to them later.
“They would do well to understand these opportunities and are able to maximize them for the good of the students, their families and the districts,” Lambert cautioned. “People are going to end up kicking themselves if they don’t apply for these funds. It is the responsibility of everyone in this business to be aware of these opportunities so they can take advantage of them.”
Beekmantown partnered with Kajeet to equip its school buses with Wi-Fi routers.
Kajeet’s Flood said the FCC’s action provides an opportunity that should not be wasted.
“This is a one-time opportunity to help expand connectivity for students with a 100 percent reimbursement from the federal government,” Flood explained. “But this opportunity will be missed if they don’t apply before the Aug. 13 deadline.”
Flood said the FCC has estimated that it might take up to 60 days before all of the grant recipients are notified.
“The FCC hasn’t given any firm dates,” Flood continued. “Some applications will be approved immediately because they’ve been evaluating them as they come in. They have set a goal of notifying the qualified applicants within 60 days of the deadline. In practice, I’m seeing the review process going fairly quickly.”
The FCC recently published a two-page “How to Apply” guide on its website.
Flood added that private contractors are eligible to participate as long as they fit the profile of a service provider. “For a contractor to be a service provider they would have to provide the equipment, installation and the service and be prepared to invoice the district or the FCC directly,” Flood explained. “They would also need to be registered on SAM.gov (System for Award Management) and they should familiarize themselves with all the rules for service providers on the Emergencyconnectivityfund.org website.”
He said solution providers such as Kajeet can easily enable a contractor to resell Kajeet’s solution. “We have done that for many contractors,” Flood said. “We are the Wi-Fi solution for First Student nationwide.”
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Meanwhile, school districts should be thinking about having a platform in which the broadband access they are providing to students will be safe and secure and not just open internet. “The goal should be to drive educational outcomes and not just entertainment,” he added.
Flood suggested that school districts seeking more information about the grants can visit the program’s website.