FCC Asks, "How Can $7 Billion Close the Homework Gap?"
Friday, March 19, 2021
FCC Asks, "How Can $7 Billion Close the Homework Gap?"
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Round-Up for the Week of March 15-19, 2021
To help schools and libraries provide devices and internet connectivity to students, school staff, and library patrons during the pandemic, Congress established a $7.171 billion Emergency Connectivity Fund as part of the recently enacted American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. Now the Federal Communications Commission must craft rules to distribute the new funds to eligible schools and libraries for the purchase of eligible equipment and advanced telecommunications and information services for use by students, school staff, and library patrons at locations other than a school or library. And the FCC is asking for public input so the new effort efficiently delivers broadband—primarily to homes.
Provisions in the Telecommunications Act of 1996 directed the FCC to create the E-Rate program to enhance access to advanced telecommunications and information services for all public and nonprofit elementary and secondary schools and libraries. The E-Rate currently provides support to eligible schools and libraries for broadband connectivity to and within schools and libraries.
As a result of the American Rescue Plan, the FCC is now considering rules for how to provide support to an eligible school or library for the purchase—during a COVID-19 emergency period—of eligible equipment or advanced telecommunications and information services (or both), for use
- in the case of a school, by students and staff of the school at locations that include locations other than the school; and
- in the case of a library, by patrons of the library at locations that include locations other than the library.
The COVID-19 emergency period is defined as beginning on January 27, 2020 and ending on (stick with me here) the June 30th that first occurs after the date that is one year after the Secretary of Health and Human Services determines that a public health emergency no longer exists. For example, if the COVID-19 emergency were declared over today, support from the Emergency Connectivity Fund would end June 30, 2022. If the emergency ends August 1st, support from the Emergency Connectivity Fund would end June 30, 2023.
Congress directs the FCC to reimburse 100% of the costs associated with the purchase of eligible equipment and/or advanced telecommunications and information services. Eligible equipment includes (1) Wi-Fi hotspots, (2) modems, (3) routers, (4) devices that combine a modem and router, and (5) connected devices. Eligible services are defined as “advanced telecommunications and information services” as the term is used in the Telecommunications Act of 1996 provisions that created the FCC's Rural Health Care and E-rate programs. For the Rural Health Care program, the FCC provides support for services, installation and equipment that makes broadband service functional. For the E-Rate program, the FCC annually compiles an Eligible Services List with two distinct categories of supported services:
- Category one is telecommunications services, telecommunications, and Internet access to the school or library building.
- Category two is Internal connections, basic maintenance, and managed internal broadband services (think local area network).
Which Schools and Libraries Can Participate?
The American Rescue Plan defines an “eligible school or library” as “an elementary school, secondary school, or library (including a Tribal elementary school, Tribal secondary school, or Tribal library)” that can currently participate in the FCC's E-rate program. The FCC proposes that schools, libraries, and consortia of schools and libraries that can get support under the E-Rate program be eligible to receive funding from the Emergency Connectivity Fund. But it also asks if there are other entities, not already eligible under the E-Rate program, that should be able to get support through the Emergency Connectivity Fund.
The FCC asks specifically about Tribal libraries and schools. Tribal libraries have been underrepresented among E-Rate applicants in the past. In order to be eligible for E-Rate funding under the FCC’s existing rules, a library must be eligible for funding from a state library agency under the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA), which was amended in 2018 to make clear that Tribal libraries are eligible for support from a state library agency. But E-Rate rules were not updated to reflect that change to the LSTA. So the FCC asks whether it should clarify that Tribal libraries are eligible for support under LSTA and are, therefore, eligible for funding from the Emergency Connectivity Fund. Similarly, the FCC asks if it should change definitions of elementary and secondary schools to ensure that all Tribal schools are eligible for funding. Are there other measures the FCC can take to ensure Tribal schools and libraries have access to the Emergency Connectivity Fund?
What Equipment and Services are Eligible for Support?
The FCC proposes to only provide funding for equipment and services that are needed to provide the connectivity required to enable and support remote learning for students, school staff, and library patrons. The FCC seeks public input on that approach, as well as comment on the specific equipment and services commenters consider necessary to support and facilitate the connectivity required for remote learning during the defined emergency period. The FCC invites comment from educators, school and library technology professionals, network engineers, librarians, and parents about the specific equipment and services that are necessary to facilitate and support the
connectivity required to meet students, school staff, and library patrons’ remote learning needs.
On the equipment front, the FCC proposes to follow the letter of the law, supporting only (1) Wi-Fi hotspots (that is “a device that is capable of—(A) receiving advanced telecommunications and information services and (B) sharing such services with another connected device through the use of Wi-Fi.”), (2) modems, (3) routers, (4) devices that combine a modem and router, and (5) connected devices (laptop computers, tablet computers, or similar end-user devices that are capable of connecting to advanced telecommunications and information services). The FCC asks if more specificity is required. Should it clarify that modems include wireless modems, such as air cards? Should the FCC provide any further guidance regarding what sorts of connected devices are eligible for reimbursement through the Emergency Connectivity Fund? Is there a commonly understood definition of a tablet computer that the FCC should use to ensure that the available funds are directed toward their intended purpose? Although not specifically identified, should desktop computers be eligible for funding as “similar end-user devices” that are capable of connecting to “advanced telecommunications and information services”? The FCC seeks comment on these questions and whether greater specificity or clarification is required with regard to eligible equipment.
The FCC also proposes that any connected device supported through the Emergency Connectivity Fund be able to support video conferencing platforms and other software necessary to ensure full participation in remote learning activities. In this regard, the FCC specifically proposes not to include mobile phones (i.e., smartphones) as eligible connected devices because such devices do not sufficiently allow students, school staff, and library patrons to meaningfully participate in remote learning activities. Should the FCC adopt specific system requirements for supported connected devices? Should the FCC require that connected devices be Wi-Fi enabled and have video and
camera functions to enable remote learning? Should FCC rules ensure these devices are accessible to and usable by people with different types of disabilities, including people who are deaf or hard of hearing; blind or with low vision; deaf and blind; and those with physical disabilities?
The FCC asks for input on how to define “advanced telecommunications and information services,” proposing a subset of the services currently available for category one E-Rate support as eligible “advanced telecommunications and information services” for purposes of the Emergency Connectivity Fund. Specifically, the FCC proposes to limit supported services to those that can be supported by and delivered with eligible equipment (i.e., Wi-Fi hotspots, modems, routers, devices that combine a modem and router, and connected devices). Specifically, the FCC proposes to exclude funding dark fiber and the construction of new networks, including the construction of self-provisioned
networks. The FCC asks for comment on this approach and whether there are additional category one services that should be ineligible.
Also on the services front, the FCC asks if it should impose minimum service standards and data thresholds. What standards are needed to enable and facilitate robust remote learning. Is the FCC's current benchmark for broadband service -- 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream -- sufficient to support remote learning? If that benchmark is not sufficient, what should the downstream and upstream targets be? Recognizing that some households have more than one student, school staff member, or library patron, and that video conferencing applications commonly used for remote learning place heavy demands on speed and use large amounts of data, what level of service and data thresholds are needed to accommodate multiple users?
Where Can Learners Receive Service?
In the American Rescue Plan, Congress seemed to envision most students, school staff, and library patrons engaging in remote learning from their homes during the pandemic and thus in need of connectivity at home. But the law is vague on the matter of allowing locations other than schools or libraries. The FCC recognizes that some students, school staff, and library patrons are unhoused or otherwise unable to engage in remote learning from home. Wi-Fi hotspots can be easily moved and used in different locations, but fixed broadband connections are delivered to a specific location. So the FCC is asking if it should impose restrictions on what locations can receive supported wireline and fixed wireless services for remote learning? Should the FCC limit one connection per location for fixed broadband services? Should the FCC impose any per-location limitation on Wi-Fi hotspots? What authority does the FCC have to impose such restrictions on locations and what should these restrictions be?
The FCC proposes to require that schools document the student(s) and staff member(s) served at each supported location and to prohibit schools from providing more than one supported connection and more than one connected device to each student or staff member. Likewise, the FCC proposes to require libraries to document the patron or patrons served at each supported location and prohibit libraries from providing more than one supported connection and one connected device to any one patron at a given time. The FCC also proposes to adopt rules to allow schools to use Wi-Fi hotspots on buses to provide broadband services to students and school staff who currently lack sufficient broadband access to fully engage in remote learning. And the FCC proposes to allow libraries to use Wi-Fi hotspots in bookmobiles to serve library patrons who currently lack sufficient broadband access.
The FCC asks if there are other places schools and libraries should be able to place Wi-Fi hotspots to provide broadband to students, school staff, and library patrons who currently lack broadband access. Are there other approaches to funding broadband access to multiple students that the FCC should incorporate into its rules? For example, some school districts (like Chicago Public Schools) have bulk purchase programs to provide free broadband service to students and their families. Would this proposed approach allow other school districts to establish similar programs?
Although the text of the American Rescue Plan is silent on permitted uses of eligible equipment and services, the FCC asks if it should require that equipment and services purchased with funding from the Emergency Connectivity Fund be primarily for educational purposes. The law states that these new rules must be consistent with E-rate language in the Telecommunications Act of 1996 which is specific about educational purposes. For schools, the FCC has defined educational purposes as “activities that are integral, immediate, and proximate to the education of students.” For libraries, activities that are “integral, immediate, and proximate to the provision of library services to
If the Commission continues with this approach, what guidance should it provide schools and libraries about how eligible equipment and services can be used? What safeguards should the FCC impose to ensure that schools and libraries are reimbursed only for the purchase of equipment and services used primarily for educational purposes? Should, for example, schools and libraries be required to restrict access to eligible equipment and services to those students, school staff, and patrons with appropriate credentials? Would such an approach allow support for bulk programs that serve a large number of students and their families?
How Reasonable is Reasonable?
The American Rescue Plan specifies that in providing support the FCC shall reimburse 100% of the costs associated with eligible equipment and services, “except that any reimbursement of a school or library for the costs associated with any eligible equipment may not exceed an amount that the [FCC] determines, with respect to the request by the school or library for reimbursement, is reasonable." So what's reasonable?
First, the FCC asks if it should reimburse for purchases of eligible equipment and services made by eligible schools and libraries since January 27, 2020. Do commenters interpret the American Rescue Plan as requiring the FCC to do so, subject to the FCC’s authority to determine reasonable costs for eligible equipment and services? If the FCC has the authority to set a different date, what date should it choose and why? The FCC proposes to allow eligible schools and libraries to seek reimbursement for the cost of eligible equipment and services purchased without having conducted an FCC-mandated competitive bidding process for purposes of the Emergency Connectivity Fund. Instead, the FCC proposes to require schools and libraries to certify that they have complied with all applicable state, Tribal, or local procurement requirements with respect to the contracts they used to purchase eligible equipment and services.
The E-Rate specific competitive bidding rules are a crucial driver of cost-effective purchasing and protecting limited E-Rate funds from waste, fraud, and abuse. Can the FCC adopt a streamlined competitive bidding process to be used by eligible schools and libraries that have not yet purchased or entered into contracts to purchase eligible equipment and/or services?
In deciding what amount is reasonable to reimburse applicants for previous purchases or pay for new purchases, the FCC seeks comment on establishing a range of costs that are reasonable for each category of equipment and service eligible for funding through the Emergency Connectivity Fund (i.e., Wi-Fi hotspots; modems; routers; devices that combine a modem and router; connected devices; and advanced telecommunications and information services). Alternatively, the FCC could adopt maximums for device and/or service costs. How should the FCC determine the reasonableness of the costs associated with each category of eligible equipment and service? Does location impact the reasonableness of the costs? Should there be a cap on any type of eligible equipment or service? Could a cap be used to target support to those students, school staff, and library patrons that are most in need? How should the FCC determine which students, school staff, and library patrons have the greatest need?
The E-Rate program provides greater discounts to schools and libraries that serve lower-income and rural populations. Should the FCC consider accounting for other factors such as poverty, rurality, and/or broadband availability in the Emergency Connectivity Fund? Recognizing the trust relationship between Tribal governments and the federal government, should the FCC allocate a portion of the Emergency Connectivity Fund for Tribal schools and libraries to ensure Tribal students, school staff and library patrons benefit from the Emergency Connectivity Fund? If so, what portion of the fund should the FCC set aside for Tribal schools and libraries?
How to Apply for Funds
The FCC is proposing to open a 30-day Emergency Connectivity Fund filing window to allow eligible schools and libraries to apply for funding for eligible equipment and services purchases made or to be made between January 27, 2020 and June 30, 2021, which is the period between the start of the COVID-19 emergency period and the end of E-Rate 2021 funding year. Each E-Rate funding year runs from July 1st of one year through June 30th of the following year. If demand for funds does not exceed available funds for the first application period, the FCC would open a filing window for the Emergency Connectivity Fund in the second quarter of every year (i.e., between April and June) for each of the following funding years, until the funds are exhausted or the emergency period ends, whichever is earlier.
The FCC wants to leverage current E-Rate forms to apply for support from the Emergency Connectivity Fund. The FCC asks what other aspects of the application process it should borrow from the existing E-Rate program (e.g., FCC Form 471, certifications, Program Integrity Assurance review, E-Rate Productivity Center). The FCC also seeks comment on what other E-Rate program rules and requirements are necessary and should be adopted for the Emergency Connectivity Fund.
How to Prioritize Funds
The FCC expects demand for Emergency Connectivity Fund support will be high and could easily outpace the available monies. The FCC proposes applying the discount
methodology used in the existing E-Rate program to prioritize funding requests if that prediction comes true. Under this approach, once an application filing window closes, the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC) will calculate whether demand exceeds the available funds. If demand exceeds available funds at the close of an application filing window, USAC would issue funding decision letters starting with the schools and libraries eligible for the highest discount percentage established under E-Rate program rules and stop issuing decision letters when sufficient funds are no longer available to meet the demand at a particular discount level. Is this the best approach for prioritizing funding requests? Should the FCC consider any alternative methods for prioritizing such requests to help ensure that limited funds are fairly and efficiently distributed to eligible schools and libraries? Should the FCC instead prioritize funding requests to target the needs of those students, school staff, and library patrons without adequate broadband access at home and/or that lack a connected device? If so, how would eligible schools and libraries identify this population in advance of a filing window? Should the FCC prioritize funding for future purchases rather than reimbursements for already purchased equipment and services, and would doing so target funds to those students, school staff, and library patrons who remain unconnected?
Last month, Miami-Dade County Public Schools suggested retroactive reimbursement for device purchases but only prospective funding for services. Would doing so target funds to unconnected students? Would it unreasonably penalize schools and libraries that have allocated limited resources to getting students, school staff, and library patrons broadband services? Should the FCC require eligible schools and libraries to certify that they will make best efforts to prioritize these students, school staff, and library patrons? Or, should the FCC establish formal rules requiring a written policy or plan for distribution? In the event of a certification, rules, or other reporting requirements, are audits the best manner to ensure compliance with this prioritization? Alternatively, should the FCC prioritize funding requests for prior purchases over requests submitted for new purchases?
How Will We Know If We Did This Right?
Finally, the FCC seeks comment on how to best measure its and USAC’s performance in efficiently and effectively administering this Fund. Should the FCC adopt specific broadband adoption goals for students, school staff, and library patrons? If so, what should those goals be? Should the FCC adopt specific goals for ensuring students, school staff, and library patrons have end-user devices for connecting to the internet? If so, what should those goals be? What data is available that could help establish a baseline against which the FCC can measure the impact of the Emergency Connectivity Fund? Do schools and libraries conduct assessments of their students’, school staffs’, and library patrons’ need for eligible equipment and services? If so, how have those assessments informed schools’ and libraries’ purchasing decisions during the pandemic? What information should the FCC direct USAC to collect to enable the FCC to evaluate progress towards meeting its goals? Should the FCC adopt specific performance goals and measures with respect to the administration of the Fund as it has done for the E-Rate program? If so, what should those performance goals be?
When Will This Program Launch?
Congress gave the FCC just 60 days to craft Emergency Connectivity Fund rules. The first step is collecting public input. Comments in this proceeding (WC Docket No. 21-93, if you are scoring at home) are due April 5 and reply comments are due April 23, 2021. We expect an FCC Report and Order sometime around May 10. Relying on current E-Rate application mechanisms, the FCC might (might!) open an application filing window in, say, June 2021. But that's all to be determined. First, interested parties should be sharing input on how best to structure the program. Then we'll see how it works in May.
- House Commerce Democrats Introduce the LIFT America Act (House Commerce Committee)
- In a Win for the Open Internet, AT&T Drops Zero-Rating (Barbara Van Schewick)
- A Running Start on New Broadband Maps (FCC)
- Rep. Jamaal Bowman introduces new bill to lower broadband costs (Vox)
- Senate Commerce Broadband Hearing Hits on Speed, Mapping, Access (MeriTalk)
Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)
- Why didn’t the CARES Act solve the digital divide? (SHLB Coalition)
- Attending school at a fast-food spot: 12 million US students lack internet a year into pandemic (The Guardian)
- The Google Files: Four things the documents reveal (Politico)
- National Efforts to Close the Digital Divide Require Local Empowerment (Ariel Benjamin, Erman Eruz, Danny Fuchs, David Gilford)
- States Look at the Data as They Try to Address the Digital Divide (John Horrigan)
- American Rescue Plan: Broadband and the Social Safety Net (Kevin Taglang)
Mar 22 — LIFT America: Revitalizing our Nation’s Infrastructure and Economy (House Commerce Committee)
Mar 22 — 12th Annual USF Update Webinar (Kelley Drye)
Mar 22 — Public Libraries and the Pandemic: Digital Shifts and Disparities to Overcome (New America)
Mar 22 — Reimaging Section 230 (Protocol)
Mar 22 — A Fireside Chat with FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr (Free State Foundation)
Mar 24 — Tech Startup Roundtable (FCC)
Mar 24 — Innovations in Privacy | Preserving Tech: Applications for Government Data Sharing (New America)
Mar 25 — Misinformation and Disinformation Plaguing Online Platforms (House Commerce Committee)
Mar 25 — Increasing Digital Access (Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond)
Mar 31 — What Could Schools and Libraries Do With $7 Billion? (SHLB Coalition)
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