FCC Seeks Comment on Emergency Connectivity Fund to Close Homework Gap

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The FCC’s Wireline Competition Bureau issued a Public Notice seeking comment on the provision of support from the $7.171 billion Emergency Connectivity Fund Congress established in the American Rescue Plan Act.  The Act directed the FCC to promulgate rules providing for the distribution of funding from the Fund to eligible schools and libraries for the purchase, during a COVID-19 emergency period, of eligible equipment and advanced telecommunications and information services for use by students, school staff, and library patrons at locations other than a school or library. Comments are due on or before April 5, 2021 and reply comments are due on or before April 23, 2021.

 

As noted in the Notice, the “COVID-19 emergency period” began on January 27, 2020, and will end on the June 30 that first occurs after the date that is one year after the Secretary of Health and Human Services determines that a public health emergency no longer exists.  The Plan defines eligible equipment to mean (1) Wi-Fi hotspots, (2) modems, (3) routers, (4) devices that combine a modem and router, and (5) connected devices, and provides that the term “advanced telecommunications and information services” means advanced telecommunications and information services, as such term is used in section 254(h) of the Communications Act.

 

The Notice seeks comment on, among other things:

  • What rules the Commission should adopt to most efficiently and effectively distribute funding, mindful of the Commission’s obligation to protect against waste, fraud, and abuse in seeking to meet the connectivity needs of our nation’s students, school staff, and library patrons.
  • Whether there are other entities not already eligible under the E-Rate program that the Commission should make eligible for support through the Emergency Connectivity Fund.
  • Its proposal to provide funding only for equipment and services that are needed to provide the connectivity required to enable and support remote learning for students, school staff, and library patrons, and comment on the specific equipment and services commenters consider necessary to support and facilitate the connectivity required for remote learning during the defined emergency period.
  • Its proposal to use the same definitions for “eligible equipment” as used in the Act and its proposal not to include mobile phones (i.e., smartphones) as eligible equipment; the Notice later asks if the FCC should interpret “advanced telecommunications and information services” to include the equipment necessary to deliver these services to connected devices as eligible regardless of the definition of “eligible equipment.”
  • Its proposal that category one services be limited to those that can be supported by and delivered with eligible equipment as defined in the Act (i.e., Wi-Fi hotspots, modems, routers, devices that combine a modem and router, and connected devices), excluding from funding dark fiber and the construction of new networks, including the construction of self-provisioned networks (based on the underlying assumption that the construction of new networks is not supported by the statutory text enumerating eligible equipment in section 7402 of the Act).
  • Whether the Commission should impose minimum service standards and data thresholds in order to consider services to be eligible advanced telecommunications and information services.
  • Whether the Commission should impose restrictions on what locations can receive wireline and fixed wireless services supported by this Fund for remote learning, or other limits (e.g., number of connections or hotspots).
  • Its proposal to require that schools document the student(s) and staff member served at each supported location and prohibit schools from providing more than one supported connection and more than one connected device to each student or staff member, and to require libraries to document the patron(s) served at each supported location and prohibit libraries from providing more than one supported connection and one connected device to any one patron at a given time.  The Notice asks whether its proposals would allow school districts to establish bulk purchase programs to provide free broadband service to students and their families.
  • Whether the Commission should require that equipment and services purchased with funding from the Emergency Connectivity Fund be primarily for educational purposes.
  • Its proposal to limit reimbursements out of the Fund to those made for eligible equipment and services for which schools and libraries have not received funding through other federal programs (i.e., Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, the CARES Act, or other provisions of the American Rescue Plan); state programs specifically targeted at providing funding for eligible equipment and services; other external sources of funding; or gifts; and further require certification that they have not received and will not seek such funding.