FCC Rolls Out $7b Student Broadband Initiative


Law360 (April 14, 2021) — The Federal Communications Commission plans to finalize its emergency educational broadband program within the next month, the acting agency chairwoman said during a panel Tuesday, indicating that more than $7 billion will soon be released to support at-home learning amid the pandemic.

Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said during a virtual event hosted by the Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council that the pandemic-relief funds allocated by Congress — specifically designated for off-campus connections — will both help schoolchildren continue learning in the short-term and possibly lay the foundation for future connectivity subsidies.

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“It’s my hope that by mid-May, we will have policies voted on by my colleagues and in place to get this homework gap program up and running,” Rosenworcel said. “I think that when we do, we’re going to make a meaningful difference in the digital divide.”

The sweeping $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package, which President Joe Biden signed into law in mid-March, included aid ranging from stimulus checks and unemployment insurance to union pensions and internet access. Part of that package carved out more than $7 billion to support students, teachers and schools through an expansion of the FCC’s E-Rate educational subsidy program.

According to the bill’s language, schools and libraries will be eligible for 100% reimbursement of costs associated with providing “eligible equipment or advanced telecommunications and information services” such as Wi-Fi hotspots, routers, laptops and tablets to students and patrons who have been forced off campus.

Some large mobile service providers want the FCC to fund a narrower range of services and focus on mobile-connected devices, which they characterize as tried-and-true solutions. On the other hand, members of the public and community groups have told the FCC that the funds could best be spent on a mix of technologies to bring internet networks directly to students.

Rosenworcel noted that the agency is still waiting on a round of reply comments, due April 23, before making a final decision on exactly how the funding will be allocated.

The acting chairwoman also noted that a parallel aid program, the Emergency Broadband Benefit, will roll out “late this month.” Using a Congressional appropriation of $3.2 billion, the EBB will subsidize up to $50 of a qualifying household’s monthly internet bill, or up to $75 of monthly internet service on tribal lands. The program can additionally cover $100 toward equipment, such as laptops and tablets, if a household purchases the equipment through their internet provider.

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The EBB is modeled after the FCC’s Lifeline subsidy program — which generally offers $10 monthly phone and internet subsidies to low-income households — although the EBB applies to a larger swath of Americans and offers more money than the base program.

Rosenworcel said her agency is now looking to partner with hundreds of community outreach groups to make sure information about the EBB is communicated in multiple languages and communities, ensuring that vulnerable populations can make use of it.

“I think there’s a lot of interest out there, and we need to make sure that interest is across the country,” she said.

Rosenworcel also suggested Congress could use the program as a starting point for more comprehensive educational broadband funding efforts in the future.

“It’s really incumbent on all of us … to make this program a success,” she said. “That’s true if you’re a provider, a public interest group or a consumer. When we make this program a success, we’ll be able to return to Congress and say, ‘This thing you created was a good idea.’ We’re going to need to make sure we have a successor to this program to continue that connection and continue helping close the digital divide.”

Read more at: https://www.law360.com/articles/1375173/fcc-to-roll-out-7b-student-broadband-plan-in-next-month?copied=1

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