- The third round of funding for the Federal Communications Commission's Emergency Connectivity Fund program opens today, and it may be the last chance schools and libraries have to apply for remaining emergency money to improve internet access and purchase equipment to help address the homework gap, according to the agency.
- Applicants have already requested $6.427 billion to fund devices and broadband connections from the total $7.17 billion program during the first and second application windows. Higher-populated states like New York and California have requested the most money compared to other states, at $754.9 million and $922.5 million, respectively.
- While the emergency fund has allowed school systems to improve at-home internet access, for students and staff, schools should not be responsible for solving long-term internet infrastructure deficits, said Noelle Ellerson Ng, associate executive director for advocacy and governance at AASA, The School Superintendents Association. "Schools are not supposed to be the conduits of community connectivity," she said.
In the third application window, schools and libraries can submit requests for funding to purchase equipment and up to 12 months of recurring services between July 1, 2022, and Dec. 31, 2023.
So far, the ECF has paid for more than 10 million internet-enabled devices and 5 million broadband connections, according to the FCC. Funding can cover laptops and tablets, Wi-Fi hotspots, modems, routers and broadband connections for off-campus use by students, school staff and library patrons in need, even if schools have returned to full-time, in-person instruction.
"This program has opened doors for thousands of students who lacked connectivity to get the tools they need to connect with their teachers and classmates," said FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, in a statement.
School systems have also used their American Rescue Plan allocations to help close the digital divide and make digital learning opportunities more accessible for students, particularly those from underserved communities.
Ellerson Ng said while school systems are grateful for the emergency response to pandemic-related school closures and other needs, more permanent, sustainable solutions are needed.
Schools have a role in ensuring students' access to the internet and devices, but they shouldn't be burdened with leading those efforts, she said.
"At the end of the day, it's not the school's responsibility to ensure that individual homes have access to internet fiber. That's not something they can or should have to do," she said.
The ECF was created as part of the ARP in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The program is administered by the Universal Service Administrative Company, which also oversees the federal E-rate program that subsidizes broadband connections for schools and libraries. The status of each ECF request is available through a searchable, public database.