Schools and libraries gain access to the Emergency Connectivity Fund in July 2021. It provides billions to help educational institutions improve the remote learning resources available to their students, staff and patrons. These resources include Internet access but also the devices needed to connect.
The Homework Gap
A photo went viral online during the coronavirus pandemic: two small girls sit cross-legged outside a Taco Bell for the Wi-Fi access that allows them to attend school online. The digital divide is a significant problem in America and one that has received a great deal of attention at a time when millions of American children are having to attend school via the internet. The acting chairperson of the Federal Communications Commission—Jessica Rosenworcel—refers to the digital divide as the homework gap and stresses that this challenge has existed long before nationwide lockdowns began. The FCC estimates that as many as 17 million American children lack the Internet access needed for their schoolwork.
The Emergency Connectivity Fund
The Emergency Connectivity Fund—or ECF—is a new FCC program with more than $7 billion in initial funding. The core goal of the ECF is to assist schools and libraries provide the tools and services that their community members need for remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. It provides relief to students and school staff but also library patrons. Individual schools and libraries are eligible, but organizations can also apply as a consortium. The application window begins on July 1, 2021, and ends on August 13, 2021. Funding will be available until July 30, 2022. All considered entities must have an active FCC Registration Number. Approved groups will receive funding that can be used for Wi-Fi hotspots; modems, routers and related devices; and laptops, tablets and other devices that people can use to connect to the Internet for remote learning.
The American Rescue Plan
The ECF was created by the American Rescue Plan. The ARP Act is a $1.9 trillion relief package that was passed by Congress in March 2020. This legislation is expansive. It includes $1,400 economic impact payments to most Americans. The act funds unemployment benefits and extended health insurance coverage for the unemployed. It increased the Child Tax Credit. State and local governments have access to the funding as do numerous small businesses. It also provides grants and other resources for municipal internet service providers like Spectrum and public-private partnerships seeking to expand broadband availability in rural areas. Additional funding will be provided via the infrastructure plan if passed, but it is important to stress that the homework gap is often an income problem and not an availability issue.
The E-Rate Program
Those familiar with the FCC E-Rate program may note similarities between it and the new ECF. Like the ECF, the E-Rate program provides benefits to schools and libraries based on the level of poverty in their respective communities and whether those communities are rural or urban. There are some important distinctions, however. The E-Rate program is more expansive concerning what can be funding. It provides funds ranging from 20 to 90 percent of the cost, but the school or library must pay at least 10 percent. The program is currently permanent, and any services or technologies funded are limited to the premises. The ECF is a temporary program. Its funding is focused on Internet access, and it can fund services or technologies to be used off the premises. Libraries, for instance, can purchase laptops and tablets that their patrons can borrow in order to access the Internet at home.
The Road Ahead
While the ECF is temporary and not a comprehensive solution, it is a positive step forward. Additional funding to close the homework gap is on the horizon. While they may disagree on how to overcome the challenges, both Democrats and Republicans recognize the issues and agree that a solution is needed.