Ed-Tech Policy

Districts Get Second Shot at E-Rate Funds to Bolster Campus Connectivity

By Alyson Klein — September 16, 2020 2 min read
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School districts will have another shot to apply for federal funding for campus connectivity, thanks to an order approved Wednesday by the Federal Communications Commission.

The move would allow districts to seek additional funds under the E-rate program, which helps schools and libraries across the country with internet connectivity needs. The new round of funding will allow districts to upgrade broadband to help with the increasing shift to 1-to-1 computing, live-streaming of classroom instruction to children at home, and expanded use of cloud-based educational tools and platforms, the FCC said in a statement. The order also waived some procedural requirements to help expedite the funds.

Originally, districts had from Jan. 15 to April 29 to apply for 2020 E-rate money, which is doled out on a rolling basis each calendar year. Districts now have until Oct. 16 to get their applications in for this new round of funding.

Earlier this year, the FCC estimated the total demand for the E-rate program at $2.91 billion. But the program has an annual cap just over $4 billion, meaning there is likely money left to spare.

The Consortium for School Networking and the State Educational Technology Directors Association advocated for the move in an Aug. 11 letter to the FCC.

“It is not an exaggeration to say that millions of students may be unable to collaborate effectively—or at all—with their teachers and peers if sufficient resources are not provided to help school districts build their online learning systems, including significantly expanding on campus broadband capacity to handle increased demand,” they wrote.

The FCC’s action is a step in the right direction, said Reg Leichty, a founder and partner at Foresight Law + Policy who lobbies on behalf of the Consortium for School Networking.

But Leichty said the FCC needs to take other steps, because, as it is, the funds can’t be used for home connectivity, which has emerged as a major problem as schools struggle to meet the needs of remote and hybrid instruction.

Congress and the federal government will have to do much more if they want to address that so-called homework gap, something the education community has been pushing for the since the spring, Leichty added.

Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass.,introduced a bill last spring that would make $4 billion in E-rate funds available to school districts for Wi-Fi hotspots, modems, routers, and other connected devices for students who need a stronger home internet connection in order to learn. And Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., has introduced similar legislation in the House that would provide $2 billion for the same purpose. So far, neither bill has advanced.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.