How CARES Act broadband expansion will help schools

Research suggests what school leaders should ask of policymakers in expanding broadband access
By: | November 16, 2020
To support K-12 online learning, many states used CARES Act relief funding to expand the availability and affordability of residential high-speed internet service. (GettyImages/Laura Olivas)To support K-12 online learning, many states used CARES Act relief funding to expand the availability and affordability of residential high-speed internet service. (GettyImages/Laura Olivas)

A dozen states used CARES Act funding to help the families of K-12 students purchase Wi-Fi-enabled devices, hotspots or both, new research shows.

Ohio, for instance, set aside $50 million in relief funds for the state’s Broadband Ohio Connectivity grant which provides devices for lower-income households through the end of 2020, according to The Pew Charitable Trusts ‘ broadband research initiative.

Most states used relief funds for digital learning, public wifi access, telehealth services, and infrastructure for residential broadband service, according to the research released Monday.

In moves that may assist K-12 schools, many states spend CARES Act funds to create more public internet access points.


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In one example, Idaho’s Commission for Libraries received $2 million to buy equipment so libraries in 50 small communities can provide 24/7 Wi-Fi access to the public. And Arizona gave its state library more than $650,000 for similar initiatives, which include providing technical support to its citizens.

The funding was frequently used to expand the availability and affordability of residential high-speed internet service. Several states introduced emergency broadband grant programs, including Delaware, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Multiple states that had grant programs before the pandemic also launched emergency broadband funds. Vermont’s COVID-Response Accelerated Broadband Connectivity Program received $17.4 million to connect homes, businesses and other organizations to high-speed internet.

Vermont’s initiative will also expand connectivity to unserved streets and neighborhoods—a cost that typically falls to property owners—and provide subsidies for household broadband service.


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But Wi-Fi hotspots are short-term solutions for internet access issues. School leaders can encourage policymakers to consider the following Pew recommendations:

  • Prioritize connecting more homes to existing infrastructure: In many cases, the last pieces of the network—a line extension or customer equipment—are lacking, and the costs are often prohibitive for property owners. Public funding for this equipment can bring more residents online, particularly in rural and remote communities.
  • Invest in planning and oversight for long-term solutions: Broadband projects can take months or years to complete. Successful state grant programs require extensive planning and stakeholder engagement to be ready to launch when funding becomes available. For example, Vermont’s Emergency Broadband Action Plan identifies short- and long-term needs and positions projects to take advantage of funding opportunities.
  • Coordinate broadband deployment across levels of government: Current federal broadband funding sources have limited engagement with state-level initiatives. The Coronavirus Relief Fund offers more flexibility, allowing states to tailor resources to meet their needs and build on existing progress.


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