2 relief programs put $10B toward student internet access

Emergency Broadband Benefit Program provides a $50-per-month discount on broadband services and equipment
By: | May 12, 2021

The Federal Communications Commission and U.S. Education Department this week announced two initiatives to expand broadband access to students and their families.

On May 12, FCC and ED announced that the $3.2 billion Emergency Broadband Benefit Program is available for eligible applicants, which include households with a child participating in the National School Lunch Program or the School Breakfast Program, as well as those who attended Community Eligibility Provision schools during SY 2019-20 and SY 2020-21. M

Medicaid, Lifeline, and Pell Grant recipients are also eligible to receive the benefit. FCC and ED will be conducting outreach to eligible communities in the education space.

“This partnership with FCC is critically important,” said Education Secretary Miguel Cardona. “As we think about recovering and building back better, we make sure we address the digital divide that has prevented access for so many of our students, not only in our higher-education space but also in our pre-K-12 levels.”

The Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, authorized by the American Rescue Plan Act, provides a $50-per-month discount on broadband services and equipment such as a modem, and up to $75-per-month for households on qualifying Tribal lands. The program will also provide a one-time $100 discount on a connected device, such as a computer or tablet, that is sold by the broadband provider, so long as the family contributes between $10 to $50 toward the purchase of the device.

“We know that the quality of home Internet access has an impact on student success and that students without robust internet access and reliable devices struggled more with the transition to remote learning this past year,” Cardona said. “This campaign will not only keep more of America’s students connected and learning but will help address inequities exacerbated by COVID-19.”

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“This is the nation’s largest-ever broadband affordability program. … We’ve never had a program like this before,” said Acting FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel.

She said she was unable to speculate how long the benefits would last, as the program is “dependent on appropriated funds,” and “we do know at some point those funds will run out.” However, she said the FCC will study how the program worked and which groups it reached and will then share the information with Congress to discuss “what a successor might look like.”

Emergency Connectivity Fund

On May 10, the FCC approved final rules for the $7.17 billion Emergency Connectivity Fund Program, also authorized by the ARP Act, to provide internet connectivity to students, school staff, and library patrons.

The program funds can be used to purchase computers and tablets, Wi-Fi hotspots, and broadband connectivity services, and are intended to address the “homework gap” as well as the inequities in access to sufficient internet service that were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and move to remote learning.

The fund “leverages the processes and structures used in the E-Rate program for the benefit of schools and libraries already familiar with the E-Rate program,” according to a statement from the FCC.

“Between this Emergency Connectivity Fund Program and the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, we are investing more than $10 billion in American students and households,” Rosenworcel said. “These investments will help more Americans access online education, healthcare, and employment resources. They will help close the Homework Gap for students nationwide and give so many more households the ability to connect, communicate, and more fully participate in modern life.”

Education advocacy groups applauded the announcements.

“In today’s world, access to the internet is essential for learning. It is critical for conducting research, doing homework, and, when school buildings are closed, attending class,” said NEA President Becky Pringle in a statement. “We applaud Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel and the Federal Communications Commission for launching the Emergency Connectivity Fund Program, which uses the American Rescue Plan funds to help ensure no students are left without the internet, laptops, or tablets needed for their education.”

“Millions of Americans are still struggling with everything from remote work to distance learning to telehealth simply because they lack the access to the internet they need,” said Tom Ferree, chairman and CEO of Connected Nation, in a statement. “We believe [the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program] will help address many of the digital inequities that persist — and are hopeful that this is only the beginning.”

Charles Hendrix covers education funding and other Title I issues for LRP Publications.

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