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A Mix of Resources and Technologies Are Needed to Close the Homework Gap

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Screenshot of Federal Communications Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel from the webinar

June 26, 2020 — Maintaining learning initiatives as the COVID-19 pandemic forced a hasty transition to virtual education was a challenging adjustment for schools, teachers, and students across the country.

Even schools that were considered relatively well-connected, with a device to student ratio of one-to-one, had to strategize about how to keep kids who lacked home broadband access connected.

The task was even harder for communities where sufficient education technology resources have historically not been available.

Panelists at a Thursday webinar hosted by New America discussed the steps different entities can take to connect all students to online learning resources, noting that action is required from the state, municipalities and the private sector.

Congress and the Federal Communications Commission play an important role in increasing the accessibility of funding for broadband and devices for students at home.

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who has been fighting to close the digital divide for years, joined the webinar to discuss possible federal efforts to address the homework gap.

In March, New America called for the agency to increase the flexibility of the application of E-rate funding.

Schools and libraries have depended on the FCC’s E-rate Program since 1996 to help eligible areas obtain affordable telecommunications and internet access.

While the program has been effective in keeping schools and libraries connected, its efforts became seemingly useless when students were sent home.

While Rosenworcel noted that she is only one of five commissioners, she pledged to use her influence to fight for increasing the flexibility of the E-rate program, making funding more available for devices and internet services to help connect students at home.

“Let’s figure out how to use the tools on the books to help schools,” said Rosenworcel. “It’s essential that we take this program and make it meet this moment.”

In the fight to connect underserved areas, she added, “every option needs to be on the table.”

Other panelists championed ideas of continued learning, technology and universal access

The panelists championed the idea that the continuity of learning requires technology and that any available connectivity option should not be turned away in the pursuit toward universal access.

While expanding the E-rate program is an essential step to expanding internet access, there are further steps that can be taken at the municipal or school district level.

Some school districts have been extremely creative in their approach to closing the homework gap affecting their communities.

David Fringer, chief technology officer of the Council Bluffs school district, detailed the steps his community has been taking to connect low income students for the past eight years by pioneering the use of community broadband networks.

In 2012, the Nebraska school district, which receives an E-rate discount of 90 percent, set off on the pursuit of achieving a one-to-one student to device ratio.

“Every student needs a device — depending on their interests, they may need different devices,” said Fringer.

The school quickly realized that while providing every student with a device is a crucial step in closing the digital divide, the devices have no use if students lack internet service at home, and the homework gap persists.

With that, the school district sprang into action working on the BLink Initiative, an initiative to offer free public Wi-Fi in high poverty areas across the city.

The city utilizes a mix of non-profit, federal and private funding to secure enough money to complete one phase of the project each year.

Each yearly phase builds an additional square mile of the Wi-Fi network. The city is now six phases in.

Fringer said that recent changes to the E-rate program have been fantastic, noting that changes to Category 2 requirements have allowed the district to build robust networks inside of their schools.

Panelists championed the idea that continuing to alter the E-rate program to fit people’s pressing needs may be the answer to closing the homework gap.

At any rate, “we have to find a way to get everyone connected,” said Rosenworcel.

Former Assistant Editor Jericho Casper graduated from the University of Virginia studying media policy. She grew up in Newport News in an area heavily impacted by the digital divide. She has a passion for universal access and a vendetta against anyone who stands in the way of her getting better broadband. She is now Associate Broadband Researcher at the Institute for Local Self Reliance's Community Broadband Network Initiative.

Education

National Non-Profit to Launch Joint Initiative to Close Broadband Affordability and Homework Gap

EducationSuperHighway is signing up partners and will launch November 4.

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Evan Marwell, founder and CEO of Education Super Highway.

WASHINGTON, October 18, 2021 – National non-profit Education Super Highway is set to launch a campaign next month that will work with internet service providers to identify students without broadband and expand programs that will help connect the unconnected.

On November 4, the No Home Left Offline initiative will launch to close the digital divide for 18 million American households that “have access to the Internet but can’t afford to connect,” according to a Monday press release.

The campaign will publish a detailed report with “crucial data insights into the broadband affordability gap and the opportunities that exist to close it,” use data to identify unconnected households and students, and launch broadband adoption and free apartment Wi-Fi programs in Washington D.C.

The non-profit and ISPs will share information confidentially to identify students without broadband at home and “enable states and school districts to purchase Internet service for families through sponsored service agreements,” the website said.

The initiative will run on five principles: identify student need, have ISPs create sponsored service offerings for school districts or other entities, set eligibility standards, minimize the amount of information necessary to sign up families, and protect privacy.

The non-profit said 82 percent of Washington D.C.’s total unconnected households – a total of just over 100,000 people – have access to the internet but can’t afford to connect.

“This ‘broadband affordability gap’ keeps 47 million Americans offline, is present in every state, and disproportionately impacts low-income, Black, and Latinx communities,” the release said. “Without high-speed Internet access at home, families in Washington DC can’t send their children to school, work remotely, or access healthcare, job training, the social safety net, or critical government services.”

Over 120 regional and national carriers have signed up for the initiative.

The initiative is another in a national effort to close the “homework gap.” The Federal Communications Commission is connected schools, libraries and students using money from the Emergency Connectivity Fund, which is subsidizing devices and connections. It has received $5 billion in requested funds in just round one.

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Education

Federal Communications Commission Says $5 Billion Requested for Emergency Connectivity Fund — in Just Round One!

The program is designed to help schools, libraries and students.

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Acting FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel

August 25, 2021—Two months after launching the first round of applications, the Federal Communications Commission said Wednesday that the Emergency Connectivity Fund has received more than $5 billion in funding requests.

The requests, which came from all 50 states plus the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, are for 9.1 million connected devices and 5.4 million broadband connections.

The $7-billion program, whose first round closed August 13, provides funding for schools and libraries to buy laptops, tablets, Wi-Fi hotspots, modems, routers, and general connectivity is expected to help students stay connected at school and off school premises, addressing the “homework gap” made paramount during the pandemic.

The money is to be used for said services and devices purchased between July 1, 2021 and June 30, 2022. The program will open a second round for applications due to a spike in new coronavirus cases, which will run from September 28 to October 13.

“The Emergency Connectivity Fund is the single largest effort to bring connectivity and devices to students who lack them – and this robust response from applicants shows the tremendous need in our communities,” FCC acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in a Wednesday press release.

“This funding is an important down payment in closing the Homework Gap so that all children, regardless of their circumstances or where they live, have access to the tools they need to succeed,” she added.

Congress authorized the program as part of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. The FCC has previously noted that the Emergency Broadband Benefit had proved out that there is demand for such a program and that the ECF would help fill the gap.

Breakdown by state

The FCC included a breakdown of the first-round requests by state. California was the top requester at roughly $812 million, followed by New York with $559 million, Texas with $496 million, Florida with $264 million, New Jersey with $225 million, Arizona with $200 million, Illinois at $197 million, Georgia $183 million, North Carolina with $149 million, Michigan with $108 million, Ohio with $103 million, and Puerto Rico with $102 million, and Washington rounding out the 9-digit requesters with $101 million.

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Education

NTIA Releases Details on Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Project

The $285-million program will help connect minority educational institutions.

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Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo

August 4, 2021–The agency managing telecommunications policy for the commerce department has released details Tuesday on eligibility for its $285-million grant program for broadband access for minority educational institutions.

The Connecting Minority Communities pilot program, announced in June, will address the lack of broadband access, connectivity and equity at historically Black colleges or universities, Tribal colleges or universities, and minority-serving institutions.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration released a notice of funding opportunity for the program, established via the Consolidated Appropriations Act 2021, which will grant funds to eligible recipients to purchase broadband service or equipment, hire IT personnel, operate a minority business enterprise or a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization, and facilitate educational instruction, including remote instruction.

Eligible institutions include 501 Hispanic-serving institutions, 336 Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-serving institutions, 104 predominantly Black institutions, 102 historically Black colleges and universities, 66 Alaska native-serving institutions and native Hawaiian-serving institutions, 37 Tribal colleges and universities, and 32 native American-serving non-Tribal institutions.

The deadline to submit applications is December 1, 2021.

“Communities of color have faced systemic barriers to affordable broadband access since the beginning of the digital age,” said Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo in a press release.

“The investments we make as part of the Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program will help communities that are struggling with access, adoption and connectivity, and will inform our path forward as we seek to finally close the digital divide across the country,” she added.

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