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Narrowing the Gap in Home Connectivity

by Charles Sosnik

E-rate may still be the answer if Congress and the FCC can work together

In the Learning Counsel’s National Survey, schools and districts from across America are weighing in on key issues related to teaching and learning. Many of the questions are asked with regards to budgets, pressures, policy, new technologies in consideration, and what programs, results, or achievements respondents are proud of in their school or district. There is also a section that rates the barriers and threats that schools and districts are experiencing. During the COVID-19 crisis, response to the survey has been unusually high, and a chief concern among respondents is home connectivity for our learners.

One of the organizations that the Learning Counsel often turns to for current data on home connectivity is Funds for Learning and their CEO John Harrington. Harrington’s organization has been working with schools and libraries since 1998, helping them receive E-rate funding for Internet access. He has a pretty good handle on the current situation and feels Congress and the E-Rate program could be an immediate answer to the connectivity gap conundrum. According to usafacts.org, more than nine million children lack Internet access for home learning. That’s nearly a fifth of our school-aged learners, and Harrington is ready to see the gap closed as soon as possible. 

In a recent video chat with the Learning Counsel, Harrington laid out what needs to be done by both Congress and the folks at E-rate, which is a program administered by the FCC. Under the E-rate program, eligible schools and libraries may receive discounts on telecommunications, telecommunications services, and Internet access, as well as internal connections, managed internal broadband services and basic maintenance of internal connections. Discounts range from 20 to 90 percent and are based on the poverty level of the schools.  Rural schools and libraries may also receive a higher discount.  Recipients must pay some portion of the service costs.

According to Harrington, here’s what Congress can do:

• With no guaranteed end to the COVID-19 outbreak insight, we need Congress to take swift and decisive action to empower the federal E-rate funding program to support online learning.

• With a few changes, Congress could bring immediate relief to K-12 students.

• Congress should provide $5.25 billion of Category 2 E-rate to support:

                   • Off-campus internet access

                   • Connected learning devices

                   • Cybersecurity for networks

• Congress must work with the FCC to eliminate the E-rate prohibition against off-campus learning.

For the FCC’s part, here is what the E-rate program should do according to Harrington:

• By making a few minor changes to existing regulations, the FCC can support schools and libraries in ensuring every student is able to get online and learn.

• Expand Category 2 funding to include end-user devices and off-campus connectivity.

• Waive its 28-day bidding period in favor of local emergency bidding requirements.

• Allow FY2020 Category 2 requests to be submitted until June 30, 2020.

• Leverage the following existing E-rate rules and resources:

                    • Waive or remove the on-campus requirement for Internet access

                    • Defer to local emergency bidding regulations

                    • Amend Category 2 eligible services list (ESL)

                    • Direct USAC to process Form 471s using only minimum processing standards

                    • Increase FY2020 Category 2 budgets by 80 percent

With so many paths to connectivity, and discussions including private sector vs. public sector responsibility, here’s why Harrington believes E-rate is the best available choice to do so:  

• It’s a time-tested program, with $86 billion in applications already processed.

• It’s aligned with the schools’ mandate to offer equitable access to education. 

• E-rate offers additional support to communities who need it most – discounts are based upon a sliding scale.

• Schools and libraries can standardize specific technology by using the existing application process for “Category Two” E-rate support. 

• Students need support, and E-rate is in a position to help now. 

                    • Speed: The E-rate program isn’t new; the application could be available in days or weeks.

                    • Simple: Less burden for schools and libraries who already know rules.

                    • Equitable: Higher support for economically challenged communities.

                    • Empowerment: Communities differ in their needs. The E-rate program allows local leaders to select the best tech for their specific situation, instead of dictating a one-size-fits-all solution.

                    • Accountable: The E-rate program already contains strong oversight to guard against waste, fraud and abuse.

There is good news. Applications for E-rate funding are through the roof, and funding speed has increased rapidly. According to Harrington, “The Funding Year 2020 filing window is unique in many regards. Setting aside the obvious (i.e. delays brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic), this filing window stands out among all E-rate application periods for one very positive reason: there are a record number of sites seeking support. There are 129,897 sites listed on Category One applications, and 59,388 sites listed on Category Two applications. This is higher than any other year in the history of the E-rate program.

On May 9, 2020, USAC released the first wave of Funding Commitment Decision Letters for Funding Year 2020.  15,421 applicants were awarded a total of $680.7 million in FY2020 Wave 001.

This wave came only ten days after the close of the filing window, and was a record-setting funding wave by all accounts:   

• The most funding ever awarded in the first wave.

• The largest funding wave ever recorded.

• The highest percentage of applicants awarded funding in a single wave.

• The highest percentage of requested funds awarded in a single wave.

• The fastest a first funding wave has ever been issued.”

Of course, home connectivity is only part of the puzzle. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the lack of a device to complete schoolwork is an additional hurdle to full participation in remote learning. Among school-aged youth, 17 percent live in households without a device suitable for online learning. More than 11 million students don’t have a device for online learning at all, and many are forced to share a device with siblings or a parent who is forced to work from home during the pandemic.

About Funds for Learning

Funds For Learning® is a professional firm specializing in the federal E-rate funding program.
Their mission is to provide high-quality consulting and support services for the needs of E-rate program participants, including preparing and submitting paperwork and helping our clients to understand and maintain compliance with E-rate rules and regulations.

About the Learning Counsel’s National Survey

Each year the Learning Counsel issues a comprehensive National Survey to gauge the state of digital transition in America’s schools.  2020 is the 7th year of this national study with typically more than 450 districts responding. New questions this year include rating barriers and threats to transition

• Social-emotional issues with students, teachers

• Attrition of students, teachers; recruitment

• Workflow and process automation

• Sharing economy trends – disaggregated services and “uberization” of teaching

• Strategic and tactical plan execution

• Advisory and consulting needs

• Tech understanding depth (User Interface, User Experience, Redesign)

• Terminology alignment

• Role/duties redefinition or disaggregation

• Networks, 5G, and next-level infrastructure

• Security

• Analytics

• Systems vs. classroom any-app autonomy

• Favored return-on-investment tech areas

The data resulting from this study will be used to produce a key findings report editorialized by the Learning Counsel. As in past years, many of the question areas are strategically created to help project the rate of change and predict the future best-actions for schools.

This article originally appeared on The Learning Counsel.

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