Schools and Libraries Can Act Now to Bridge the Digital Divide

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

SHLB Coalition

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Digital Beat

Schools and Libraries Can Act Now to Bridge the Digital Divide

John Windhausen Jr.

Schools and libraries have an enormous window of opportunity to help their students and patrons obtain affordable internet access. At the end of this month, the Federal Communications Commission will open a 45-day filing window for the Emergency Connectivity Fund program, which will make $7.17 billion available to fund broadband service and devices off-campus. Although the FCC’s E-rate program has supported broadband services to and within school and library premises, the new Emergency Connectivity Fund leverages the E-rate application process to let schools and libraries connect their students, staff, and patrons at home.

Speaking at a virtual workshop hosted by the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition, Acting FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel described the Emergency Connectivity Fund as “the largest single effort in our nation’s history to make sure students have access to the broadband and devices they need for that kids who have been locked out of the virtual classroom can now go online for class and do their nightly schoolwork. Plus, it will make it possible for libraries nationwide to offer their patrons, including students, new ways to go online and bring connectivity home.”

There are several significant reasons why schools and libraries should apply for Emergency Connectivity Fund support:

  • The support covers broadband services and devices for use off-campus.
  • The program will reimburse 100 percent of the costs associated with purchasing eligible services and equipment (no matching contribution is required).
  • The program adopts the SHLB Coalition’s “to and through” approach to deploying broadband (in areas where no commercially available broadband service exists).

Alicja Johnson

While the Emergency Connectivity Fund rules are not as flexible as we’d hoped for, the program nonetheless offers an incredible opportunity for students and library patrons to receive free service and devices. To find out how applicants can make the most of this funding, we spoke with several schools and libraries who’ve been working to connect their communities throughout (and in some cases, before) the pandemic.

Maximizing the Emergency Connectivity Fund Opportunity: Lessons from the Field

Setting up for success with a needs assessment

Appropriately, every community takes a different approach to addressing the unconnected students and library patrons. But all success stories in this realm start at the same place: a thorough needs assessment. After all, it’s hard to fix a problem if you don’t have a clear picture of the situation.

Needs assessments take on extra significance for the Emergency Connectivity Fund program. The FCC Order specifies that schools and libraries must certify that their funding will support students, school staff, and patrons who would otherwise lack adequate broadband access, which the FCC calls “unmet need.”  According to Deb Kriete, chair of the State E-rate Coordinators’ Alliance, “all roads lead back to documentation of unmet need.”

Chicago Connected—one of the largest citywide efforts to connect students—took a multipronged approach to appraise connectivity in K-12 households. The community-based organization Kids First Chicago worked with Chicago Public Schools (CPS) to identify “hardship characteristics” typical of students with housing insecurity. CPS also shared a directory of student addresses (names and other personal data excluded) with willing service providers in the city, who went through each location and identified whether the household had service, and at what level. For households not served, Chicago Connected had each provider indicate whether there was infrastructure in place to connect the address.

For schools unsure of where to begin with a needs assessment, Kriete provides the sample below as a jumping-off point:

sample unmet need survey

Leverage strong relationships with community partners and internet service providers

Another commonality among successful initiatives to connect students and library patrons is collaboration between trusted partners. School and library partners come in all kinds of forms, including local leaders and community-based organizations like Kids First Chicago, but there’s no blueprint for the perfect partnership. What we can say for sure is that efforts like Chicago Connected demand myriad areas of expertise, and involving as many stakeholders as possible is the way to go.

Partnerships with service providers are just as important as collaborating with local and nonprofit partners. Of course, the number and size of internet service providers (ISPs) in a given region vary heavily around the country, but even finding a single trusted provider makes a world of difference. Pottsboro Library Director Dianne Connery’s relationship with JJ McGrath, CEO of homegrown wireless company TekWav, exemplifies the impact of a healthy relationship between a community anchor institution and a local ISP. Nestled in a remote corner of Texas that lacks much in the way of digital infrastructure, the Pottsboro Library has a single paid employee who works part-time, meaning the library needs all the help it can get with broadband connectivity. Connery reports that McGrath and TekWav have been invaluable prior to and during the pandemic, from helping her boost the library’s wireless internet signal to the parking lot to putting wireless equipment on water towers so that parents who check out Wi-Fi routers have access to an internet signal.

That being said, it does take time for a community anchor institution to find an ISP it can trust, and many schools and libraries work with multiple providers in order to reach every student. But an open and collaborative mindset ultimately pays off.

Be sure to test hotspots before placing a bulk order

As always with broadband deployment, there’s no “one-size-fits-all” solution for students and library patrons. In some areas, Wi-Fi hotspots are an ideal way to provide learners with a low-cost and affordable internet connection. But for dense urban communities and more remote rural communities, Wi-Fi hotspots may have limited bandwidth and weak signal strength.  Fresno Unified School District’s Philip Neufeld notes that hotspots don’t work in the district’s areas of poverty, where students need them most. In a similar vein, the school district in Pottsboro spent $19,000 on hotspot devices—all of which are now getting dusty in a closet due to lack of functionality.

But remember, for some schools and libraries, hotspots will be a perfect fit. Ideally, Emergency Connectivity Fund applicants will figure out whether the devices are viable prior to moving forward with them. Some things to consider are the location of cell towers. Neufeld realized that provider towers were disproportionately placed near more affluent Fresno neighborhoods, which explained why the hotspot signals didn’t come through for lower-income students.  Chicago Connected determined where hotspots would be effective for students by figuring out who lives in buildings currently receiving service from the appropriate provider.

Emergency Connectivity Fund applicants should make time to execute tests that help identify whether hotspots will function in homes of specific students and patrons.

Adoption, adoption, adoption. You NEED a plan for adoption!

One of the biggest hurdles in addressing the digital divide is adoption. It’s not enough to build the infrastructure. And it may not be enough to just pay the bills for broadband service. Emergency Connectivity Fund applicants need an adaptable, creative plan to promote internet awareness and provide digital literacy skills that make it easier for people to benefit from the technology. This requires ongoing effort.

To zero in on the need for adaptability, let’s return to the Chicago Connected example. After starting out with robocalls and texts notifying eligible families about the opportunity for free home internet access, community partners assisted with follow-up. Kids First Chicago found a “trust gap” wedged between families and providers. The program also found that enrollment in free digital literacy content was lower than anticipated. The partnership responded by altering its promotional messaging and doing a focus group with parents to explore barriers to taking digital literacy courses, among other tactics. The bottom line is that despite imperfect adoption rates, Chicago Connected continues recalibrating to pursue its mission.

Pottsboro Library faces its own difficulties with adoption. After turning her office into a telehealth hub during the pandemic, Connery found that more education was needed to help her community understand telehealth. Unfortunately, as a one-person operation, her time is limited—something that many rural and small libraries struggle with. Still, Connery does all she can to foster digital literacy among her patrons, hoping that eventually there will be funding for a paid digital navigator position.

Time to Act

Over the last year, school and library efforts to continue serving students and patrons at their homes have been nothing short of inspiring. Now that the FCC has made over $7 billion available to schools and libraries for this very purpose, we can’t wait to see Emergency Connectivity Fund applicants develop even more innovative ways to lessen the digital divide. For those willing and able to seize this opportunity, the first step is to review the Emergency Connectivity Fund application process and get ready to apply before the application window closes on August 13.  

For additional information about the Emergency Connectivity Fund, visit the resources below.

Resources for Emergency Connectivity Fund Applicants

Summary of Emergency Connectivity Fund - Debra Kriete, South Dakota E-rate Coordinator; Julie Tritt Schell, Pennsylvania E-rate Coordinator

Emergency Connectivity Fund FAQ - Funds For Learning

Emergency Connectivity Fund Information - Federal Communications Commission

Emergency Connectivity Fund Hub - Universal Service Administrative Company

Why Low-Cost Devices Matter for Broadband Policy - Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

How the FCC Will Help Schools and Libraries Bridge the Digital Divide - Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

John Windhausen Jr. is the executive director of the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition. Regarded as the leading champion for anchor institution broadband, Windhausen founded the SHLB Coalition in 2009 to pursue the goal of gigabit connectivity for every anchor in the country. 

Alicja Johnson is the communications manager for the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition, where she works to highlight community anchor institution connectivity needs.

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.

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