The Emergency Connectivity Fund has Potential to Narrow the Homework Gap: Here’s How

Thoughts
By: 
John Harrington

Insufficient access to reliable Internet connections and devices remains a significant issue in communities across the United States. Schools and libraries are working to bridge the gap, and funding available through The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 will be instrumental in ensuring students and library patrons can participate in online learning from home.

The American Rescue Plan Act includes the new Emergency Connectivity Fund, a $7.171 billion funding source for off-campus internet connections and connected devices to be distributed to schools and libraries in a timely and effective manner.

After the signature of the American Rescue Plan Act, the FCC issued a Public Notice seeking comment on the regulations and application process for the Emergency Connectivity Fund. Funds For Learning submitted comments to the FCC that recommend a path forward to distribute funds quickly and effectively. Here’s what we proposed to the FCC.

 

Use what works.

In the most recent iteration of our E-rate Trends Report, 82 percent of applicants agreed that if allowed, the E-rate program would offer the most practical solution for their organizations to access funding for off-campus internet access and/or remote learning.

The established E-rate system can support the allocation process, similar to how the IRS has navigated the distribution of stimulus dollars. Since the E-rate program already contains contact and banking info for a majority of schools and libraries, funds can be rolled out quickly and efficiently.

 

How should the Emergency Connectivity Fund be structured?

Funds For Learning previously estimated that $7.5 billion was needed in order to provide connected devices and secure, off-campus internet access for remote learners. The actual need is likely even higher – with $7.1 billion available, there is a good chance that more funding is needed than will be available for distribution.

To make certain that the funds are distributed in a timely and equitable manner, Funds For Learning suggests that the FCC leverage the E-rate program’s forms and online application portal, resulting in reduced administration costs. We also suggest that the FCC avoid mandating specific technology choices, as each school and library’s needs are unique.

 

Reduce burden, lower risk and save money

School and library staff are already comfortable with the E-rate process. Using existing user accounts and bank information for the Emergency Connectivity Fund will save the program money and time by leveraging USAC’s mature, tested systems.

 

Student-centered support offers effective aid

To ensure funding is going to those who need it most, we recommend that the FCC base reimbursement on existing enrollment data for schools and building size for libraries. We also suggest the FCC consider the percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced lunches.

 

Two-track application system – fast, fair and flexible

We propose a two-track application process, with “standard” and “special request” funding designations, to help ensure that each submission is processed as quickly as possible.

  • School & Library Emergency Connectivity Fund ($6.285 billion): Fast funding for most applicants using per applicant budget caps.
     
  • State Special Request Emergency Connectivity Fund ($765 million): Some applicants face extraordinary situations that fall outside the norm, requiring levels of support well above the average costs experienced in most communities. For these circumstances, the FCC should establish a designated pool of funding available specifically for exceptional challenges, to be examined on a case-by-case basis.
     

Inclusive list of eligible services to better serve communities

Emergency Connectivity Fund support should be available for any hardware, software, and/or service that a school or library deems necessary for remote learning.  This approach ensures that applicants are not forced choose technology which doesn’t truly satisfy their needs.

 

Data transparency and accountability

Taking best practices from the E-rate program will impact the overall success of the Emergency Connectivity Fund. We can use the program’s existing online application portal and data tools to publish records and conduct post-reimbursement audits and reviews. Sharing data with the public ensures good decision making and provides important data points for research.

 

Meeting the needs of every community

The Emergency Connectivity Fund is necessary for supporting the pressing needs of schools and libraries. The pandemic has been especially difficult on the students and library patrons who are cut-off from the digital world. The time has come to include these students and adults in online learning – whether it be to participate in remote or hybrid instruction, or to complete and submit online homework assignments upon returning to campus.

By using what’s already working with the federal E-rate program, the FCC can allocate funds in a way that’s fast, fair, flexible, and fiscally accountable.

 

About the author

In his role as Chief Executive Officer at Funds for Learning, John Harrington leads the nation’s premier E-rate compliance firm. Mr. Harrington and his firm provide service to E-rate stakeholders nationwide and have helped schools and libraries apply for $2.1 billion in E-rate funding to support 21st century communication infrastructures.

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