Families who qualify for the free and reduced-price lunch program can get $50 off their monthly broadband bills, thanks to a new, emergency federal program, the U.S. Department of Education and the Federal Communications Commission emphasized in a May 12 meeting.
Low-income families living on tribal lands are eligible for an even steeper discount, $75 a month.
What’s more, students in post-secondary education who receive Pell Grants can also tap the funding. And eligible families can receive $100 in one-time help in paying for digital devices—such as laptops, tablets, and desktop computers—as long as the family contributes between $10 and $50 for the hardware.
Applications for this $3.2 billion program opened just this week, even though the money for it was approved by Congress late last year. The Biden administration wants to make sure that families know about the benefits and it is urging school districts to help spread the word.
“Internet access is essential for modern life,” said Jessica Rosenworcel, the acting chairwoman of the FCC, during a call with reporters. “Broadband access is no longer a nice to have, it’s a need to have.”
Even before the pandemic, she said, students sat in cars in school parking lots so that they could access school Wi-Fi to complete their assignments, or headed to a fast-food restaurant and did their “homework with a side of fries.”
But once COVID-19 hit and nearly every school was forced to hold virtual classes, “the homework gap became a full-fledged education gap,” she said.
Speaking at the same May 12 meeting, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, who served as state schools chief in Connecticut at the start of the pandemic, said that when school buildings shut down, the state immediately “wanted to close the digital divide. Providing broadband access and providing a digital device was essential.”
The federal funding for the program—the Emergency Broadband Benefit—is temporary, and Rosenworcel was unable to say how long she expected the money to last. Still, advocates are already pushing to make the funding permanent.
The FCC is also exploring whether the E-rate program—which currently funds internet access in school buildings and libraries—could be expanded to include students’ homes.
The Emergency Broadband Benefit program will produce key data on broadband needs, and the administration will study it closely, Rosenworcel said. “My hope at the FCC [is that] we can return to Congress and offer some ideas about what a successor might look like,” she said.
School districts can also help raise awareness of the program, and even give families a hand in applying, the department suggested. For instance, districts can create an “outreach team” or work with community organizations to get the word out, and help with applications.
They can also help families find participating internet service providers in their communities by using a “Companies Near Me” tool. Or they can organize a “provider fair” where families can meet with local providers to compare services and ask questions. The Biden administration created an “outreach tool kit” to help with these efforts.