School districts can seek reimbursement of up to $400 per device and $250 per Wi-Fi hot spot used for remote learning, under a $7 billion Federal Communications Commission fund aimed at covering the costs of student and teacher access to broadband at home during the pandemic.
The FCC this week finalized rules for a newly-created “Emergency Connectivity Fund,” a pot of money Congress approved during the most recent COVID-19 stimulus package to address the so-called homework gap.
The commission published the rules late Tuesday, and school systems and vendors alike are still parsing over details.
The publication of final rules follows a rare process in which the FCC released a draft order for the $7 billion fund, and then extended the deadline for the public to weigh in so it could make last-minute changes. That process resulted in some pretty substantial amendments from the draft, including how the money will be distributed to schools and what time periods districts can ask to be reimbursed for.
Worth noting: The $7 billion is not part of the E-Rate program that schools and libraries use to improve their internet connectivity, although it has been commonly confused as an expansion of E-Rate. It is a stand-alone fund, and it’s not clear if the new pot of money will be replenished once it runs out. (Independent of the new fund, the FCC continues to weigh an E-Rate expansion for off-campus connectivity)
The new remote learning fund will draw heavily on already existing E-Rate rules and forms to help speed along the process of getting money to schools in desperate need of assistance to pay for laptops, tablets and other tech tools for distance learning.
Districts will be able to apply for money from the new fund sometime this summer, most likely around June. The FCC did not provide a specific date but the commission, in one of several nods in its final order to the sense of urgency felt by schools across the country, said a 45-day application window would open “as soon as practicable.”
Here’s several key things school districts and vendors need to know about the $7 billion remote learning fund:
How The FCC Will Prioritize Funding
The FCC will use the existing E-Rate application for the new fund, and will provide money to schools based on a formula that involves total enrollment and the number of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. If demand exceeds available funding, schools will be prioritized based on their E-Rate Category One discount, which provides up to a 90-percent discount. Under the new rules, rural districts will automatically receive a 5-percent “bump” to the discount rate when calculating their applications, a move that one FCC commissioner said will provide “rural students with a fairer shot at receiving an equitable distribution of these funds.”
In doing that, the FCC abandoned a proposal in its draft order that some organizations had labeled as an “all-or-nothing approach,” in which the largest urban districts could have gobbled up a disproportionate amount of funding, leaving as many as 5 million students, according to one estimate, without devices or Wi-Fi connectivity.
What Dates Are Covered By The Fund
The first application window for school districts will cover the periods between July 1, 2021, and June 30, 2022, for equipment that has yet to be purchased during the upcoming school year. The FCC is calling this a “prospective” reimbursement filing period. If there’s money left over after that 45-day application window closes, the FCC will open a second filing period for districts to get reimbursed for remote learning costs already incurred by school systems, going back to March 1, 2020, and extending until June 30, 2021.
One caveat: If the FCC determines after the first filing period closes that support for students and school staff has fallen “far short of meeting current needs,” the commission may consider opening a second window to fund another round of “prospective” purchases before letting schools apply to get reimbursed for already-made purchases.
This also marks a major change from the proposed draft, in which the FCC had prioritized expenses already incurred by school districts. In its final order, the FCC said that its prior approach of prioritizing already-made purchases “would not be the best use of public funds because it would create a risk that we would have insufficient funding available to provide support for connected devices and broadband Internet access services for students, school staff, and library patrons.” Those individuals and groups otherwise “would not have access to devices and connectivity sufficient to meet their remote learning needs during the coming school year,” the agency said.
School districts will not have to go through any extra FCC-specific competitive bidding requirements. But districts will have to comply with local and state bidding rules.
Some groups expressed concern in public comments about the FCC’s initial proposal for invoicing. In the commission’s draft order, districts would have been prevented from making purchases and requesting reimbursement unless they had the money upfront to buy devices or equipment.
The commission’s final order allows for school districts to incur an expense — without cash in hand — and then file for reimbursement. Once the district is provided with the money from the $7 billion fund, it then has 30 days to pay the vendor.
What Equipment Qualifies For Funding
- Wi-Fi hot spots, modems, routers, devices that combine a modem and router
- Laptop and tablet computers
- Smartphones (despite a lobbying effort by companies such as Samsung and the biggest wireless industry trade association)
The FCC also noted that the fund does not support reimbursement for smartphones purchased by schools to use as Wi-Fi hot spots because “much less expensive hot spots can serve the same purpose.”
And districts will be reimbursed up to $400 per device with one exception: laptops or tablets for students with disabilities. The FCC said it realizes that $400 may not be enough for a connected device to meet the needs of a student or staff with disabilities. So districts can request a waiver in those instances to get reimbursed for more.
No Money For Cyber Tools and Learning Management Systems
Some groups asked the FCC to make a range of other equipment eligible for reimbursement, such as cybersecurity tools — including virtual private networks, firewall software, filtering services — and learning management systems, videoconferencing equipment, stand-alone microphones and “online learning services that support online learning platforms.”
The FCC declined with this message: “We do not dispute that schools and libraries need many of the identified products and services, but we believe they are outside the scope of what Congress directed us to support through the Emergency Connectivity Fund.”
Likewise, the FCC rejected calls to allow money from the fund to be used for the construction of new networks.
The only exception, according to the FCC, is when a school system can show that there is no commercially available broadband available for purchase. The commission noted that infrastructure construction projects are complex, time-consuming and better suited to be funded through other programs where the goal isn’t to immediately establish connectivity.
The FCC declined to set minimum standards for broadband connections, saying establishing such a threshold could “penalize schools, libraries, students, school staff, and library patrons in places where slower speed, data capped, and/or high latency services are currently the only affordable options.”
Wi-Fi On School Buses
Districts will be allowed to use money from the fund to buy Wi-Fi hot spots for school buses or bookmobiles.
The FCC said there is “ample support” to show that putting Wi-Fi hot spots on buses is a cost-effective way to deliver connectivity to students and school staff.
Image by Getty
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