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The FCC’s $7 Billion Fund to Address the ‘Homework Gap’: 6 Key Issues to Watch

Sam Urban Wittrock, left, an advance placement World History Teacher at W.W. Samuell High School, displays a wifi hot spot that are being handed out to students in Dallas, Thursday, April 9, 2020. Dallas I.S.D. is handing out the devices along with wifi hotspots to students in need so that they can connect online for their continued education amid the COVID-19 health crisis. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

The Federal Communications Commission has a new $7 billion pot for schools to recoup the costs of paying for student and teacher access to broadband at home — and now the agency must figure out how to distribute the money.

Since the money came through, the FCC has started the process, recently announcing that it is formally requesting public comment for the new program aimed at addressing the so-called “homework gap.”

The COVID-19 stimulus package approved earlier this month allocated $7 billion to the FCC for the creation of what is being called the “Emergency Connectivity Fund” to pay for high-speed internet and devices used off campus.

The agency has 60 days from enactment of the relief measure to get final rules in place. That means school districts could start applying for money as early as mid-May or early June, said Reg Leichty, founding partner of the education consulting group Foresight Law+Policy.

School systems looking for help covering the costs of keeping students connected earned a major win with the federal funding, said Leichty, but it won’t serve as a long-term solution for remote learning since the money isn’t permanent.

“It’s not a comprehensive plan,” he said, “but it is a huge leap forward.”

The FCC’s request for comments about the new policy surfaced a number of key questions. They include how the $7 billion in funding can be distributed equitably; whether it should create broadband adoption goals, benchmark speeds and data thresholds; what type of devices qualify; if services and equipment can be used for educational purposes only; and what the bidding process should look like.

The answers to those questions have implications for companies across the ed-tech market — not only those focused directly on providing connectivity to schools and homes, but also those whose digital products would benefit from students being able to connect more easily.

Here are six critical issues that companies keeping track of the FCC program should watch for:

While some questions remain unanswered, this much is clear: Wi Fi hotspots, modems, routers, devices that combine a modem and router, along with laptop and tablet computers all qualify for funding.

What about smartphones? The FCC says nope, and has proposed that all eligible devices need to be able to support video conferencing platforms and other software necessary “to ensure full participation in remote learning activities.” And that’s where the FCC believes smartphones don’t make the cut, writing in the public notice that such devices do not sufficiently allow students, school staff, and library patrons to meaningfully participate in remote learning activities.”

And what about desktops? The FCC is asking for folks to weigh in on that one: “Although not specifically identified, should desktop computers be eligible for funding as ‘similar end-user devices’ that are capable of connecting to ‘advanced telecommunications and information services?’”

The FCC also wants to know if it should impose minimum system requirements for eligible devices, and whether it should require devices to be Wi-Fi enabled and have video and camera functions for remote learning. 

The FCC wants to know how far back it should allow applicants seeking funding to recoup costs. In its request for public comment, the agency’s Wireline Competition Bureau proposed that the full FCC allow eligibility to begin on Jan 27. 2020,  the date U.S. health officials determined coronavirus to be a public health emergency. But the agency also asked if  another date should be considered.

There has been some disagreement among school systems on a date, according to public comments the FCC received in a different remote learning inquiry. The FCC noted that it has received comments as part of that other inquiry from the New York City Department of Education advocating for a reimbursement period to begin in March 2020, when most schools switched to remote learning. But others, including the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, have made the case in public comments for a July 1, 2020 date that coincides with the beginning of the E-rate funding year.

Leicthy said this is a big question for the agency to answer since many districts have spent the last full year scrambling to find money to buy Wi Fi hotspots and devices, and don’t want to be “penalized when it comes to being able to offsetting those costs.

“You should be able to look back to cover some costs incurred and one reasonable way to do that is to look at the entire 2020 and 2021 school year,” he said.

Since many districts have already entered into contracts for broadband and devices for students to use at home, the FCC is proposing to allow some school systems to bypass the competitive bidding process for purposes of seeking reimbursement through the homework gap fund.

Instead of going through the formal bidding process, the FCC says it could allow those districts to simply certify that they have complied with state and local procurement requirements. 

And for those districts that have yet to purchase broadband or devices for off-campus use, the FCC is asking in its request for comments whether it should adopt a streamlined competitive bidding process, which could include reducing from 28 days to 14 days the time that a district must wait to enter into a contract with a service provider after posting an RFP. 

There’s also some disagreement among school systems and organizations about this. The FCC has established a benchmark of 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream as adequate to support remote learning.

But the Los Angeles Unified School District told the agency in public comments in another remote learning inquiry that those speeds are “inadequate for supporting uninterrupted teaching and learning, particularly in households in densely populated urban areas where multiple students are often struggling to stay connected.” The L.A. school district did not specify speeds it thought would be suitable.

However, INCOMPAS, the internet and competitive networks association, a D.C.-based trade organization, wrote to the FCC recommending that the benchmark speeds of at least 25/3 as the minimum service standard.

So the FCC is asking in its request for comments if what should the downstream and upstream speed targets be? And what Internet speeds are necessary for people with disabilities who use telephone relay service and video relay services?

School districts have been vocal about the need for federal funds dedicated specifically to off-campus connectivity. 

Most were expecting that money to come from an FCC change to its longstanding position that funds from the E-Rate program can’t be used to help with internet access in students’ homes. That was the expectation after the agency initiated a request for public comment on the issue back in February. The general thinking was that the FCC would roll over unused E-rate funds to create an emergency pot of money that districts could tap sometime this spring or summer. 

But Congress all but sidelined that discussion for now by approving the $7 billion as part of the latest stimulus plan.  

So now expanding E-rate to cover off-campus connectivity needs will get put on a back burner of sorts while the FCC works through delegating the $7 billion that Congress has appropriated. The FCC is going to “wait and reassess the situation before making a decision on E-rate,” said Leichty. 

FCC Interim Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, in an interview with Education Week this month, said the agency is still reviewing comments, and remains in the “process of evaluating how we can update the current E-rate program to meet the moment students and families find themselves in.”

The FCC’s public notice cites research from a nonprofit organization that estimates it would cost between $6 billion and $12 billion to cover costs for broadband and devices in the first year. So it’s not immediately clear how long Congress’ $7 billion infusion will meet the connectivity needs of schools and families.

Demand for reimbursement is expected to be high through the first funding window, according to the FCC’s notice. But if there’s leftover money, the FCC is suggesting that a new application window be opened the second quarter of every year until the money’s gone.

Once that happens, future funding remains uncertain to help curb the cost of providing mobile Wi Fi hot spots and broadband for students. 

“This emergency connectivity fund would be the driving factor for any change over time, and if the FCC decides they need more funding they could follow up and roll over unused E-rate funds at that time,” said Leichty.  

Photo: A teacher in a Dallas high school last year displays one of the Wi Fi hot spots that were being given out to students so that they could connect online during COVID-19. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)


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