On Wednesday, Congress passed a measure to create a new $7.1 billion Emergency Connectivity Fund for the E-Rate program to support remote learning for schools and libraries as part of the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package through the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. President Biden signed the measure Thursday.
Under Title III, Subtitle D, Section 7402 of the legislation, which is entitled, “Funding For E-Rate Support For Emergency Educational Connections and Devices,” an Emergency Connectivity Fund is promulgated for eligible schools or libraries to purchase supplies. The purchases can include “eligible equipment or advanced telecommunications and information services (or both), for use by – in the case of a school, students and staff of the school at locations that include locations other than the school; and in the case of a library, patron of the library that include locations other than the library” during the COVID-19 emergency period. Accordingly, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will “reimburse 100 percent of the costs” associated with the covered equipment and services, but the “reimbursement of a school or library for the costs associated with any eligible equipment may not exceed an amount that the Commission determines.”
Pursuant to the legislation, the Emergency Connectivity Fund will receive $7.171 million, which will remain available until September 30, 2030, to support the covered regulations. Additionally, as defined in the legislation, eligible equipment includes: Wi-Fi hotspots, modems, routers, devices combining a modem and router, and connected devices.
Acting FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel stated, “The nation’s Homework Gap has never been more evident than during this pandemic with the move to remote learning. So, passage of the American Rescue Plan which would create the Emergency Connectivity Fund is welcome news. That’s because millions of students are locked out of the virtual classroom right now. They can’t do daily schoolwork. They’re the kids sitting outside of the fast food restaurant just trying to catch a Wi-Fi signal to go to class … The Emergency Connectivity Fund could make a major difference in our ability to help these families and students.”
FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks stated, “A few weeks ago, I met with Detroit middle school students to talk about their online learning experience. They told me that a large share of their classmates cannot participate, and many have quit virtual learning out of frustration with slow broadband speeds and inadequate devices. Those students are not alone. An estimated 12 million students remain locked out of the virtual classroom. This relief package’s $7 billion investment in emergency connectivity will help ensure that all students can continue learning and growing.”
The experience both the FCC Acting Chairwoman and Commissioner describe is paralleled in a lawsuit against New York City for allegedly failing to provide adequate and reliable internet broadband access in shelters for students to participate in remote learning.
This funding comes after Congressional Democrats urged the FCC to use the E-Rate program, which helps provide affordable internet access to schools and libraries, to help students participate in remote learning. Similarly, December’s COVID-19 relief package included $7 billion to fund broadband internet access, under which the FCC created the $3.2 billion Emergency Broadband Benefit Program.