Beth Holland: Funding Sources to Address the Digital Divide

By Beth Holland, originally published in the May/June, 2021 issue of Equity and Access.

Although tremendous gains have been made over the last several months to increase students’ access to high-speed internet and quality devices to support remote learning, a fall report from Common Sense, Boston Consulting Group (BCG), and Southern Education Foundation found that more than 12 million students remain disconnected. Of that number, approximately 60% of students, particularly those from Black and Latino households, reported that they could not afford sufficient internet access. With the passage of the American Rescue Plan, two funding sources are about to become available to address this challenge.

E-Rate and the Emergency Connectivity Fund

Established by the American Rescue Plan, the Emergency Connectivity Fund adds $7.1 billion to the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC’s) Universal Service Fund’s Schools and Libraries Program — also known as E-Rate. Established in 1996, and based on a funding formula associated with the socioeconomics of the community, E-Rate helps to offset between 20-90% of the costs related to internet and telecommunications infrastructure for schools, districts, and public libraries.

In the past, this funding could only be used within the confines of a school or library and not to support off-campus access. However, this new expansion of E-Rate will allow schools and libraries to leverage this funding for students to access the Internet and devices both inside and outside of school. To apply for E-Rate funding, schools, districts, and libraries work through an application process that verifies whether the equipment that they want to purchase can be covered as well as to determine the amount of money that they may be eligible to receive.

In the past, substantial policy language limited how E-Rate funding could be applied. Recently, over 54 education organizations signed a petition to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce to allow for greater flexibility with applying for and spending money associated with the Emergency Connectivity Fund. In addition, both the Consortium of School Networking (CoSN) and the Schools, Health, & Libraries Broadband Coalition have published recommendations to the FCC advocating for an easier process as well as additional leeway in terms of how the money may be spent.

Although individual educators and librarians cannot directly request E-Rate funding, they can take immediate action to help ensure that their students may benefit. Because of the complexity of the E-Rate filing process, many smaller schools and districts might not have applied for funding in the past. However, local education agencies, regional technology consortiums, and some states can apply as a collective entity both to gain greater bargaining power to reduce costs and to facilitate the application process. Given the increase in available funding to address home access, this may be an opportune time to organize and advocate for this type of collaboration.

Increasing Internet Access through the Emergency Broadband Benefit

In addition to the Emergency Connectivity Fund, the new American Rescue Plan also included approximately $3.2 billion in subsidies through the Emergency Broadband Benefit program. This new plan discounts broadband services for qualifying households by offering subsidies directly to internet service providers. Beginning on May 12, households that participate in programs such as Lifeline or SNAP (supplemental nutrition assistance), free and reduced-price meals at school, the Pell grant, or unemployment can receive discounts of up to $50 per month ($75 per month on Tribal Lands) as well as a one-time, $100 discount on a computer.

Since this process requires households to sign up for this benefit online (a process that may be challenging due to lack of internet access, language barriers, or literacy level) educators and schools help families understand what may be possible and create resources to help them get enrolled. The FCC has a list of providers, organized by state, that will be offering subsidized services. Next Century Cities created an Emergency Broadband Benefit guide for consumers, and the National Digital Inclusion Alliance has a web page of resources including a webinar. Educators could leverage these resources as starting points and then create custom materials specific to their communities.

Over the next several months, the federal government plans to make one of the largest financial investments in history to address the “Digital Divide.” Schools, districts, and individual educators play a critical role in making sure that it can reach those students who most need it.

The American Consortium for Equity in Education, publisher of the "Equity & Access" journal, celebrates and connects the educators, associations, community partners and industry leaders who are working to solve problems and create a more equitable environment for historically underserved pre K-12 students throughout the United States.

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