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Shirley Bloomfield: Promoting Home Connectivity for Rural Students Through Broadband

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Shirley Bloomfield, chief executive officer of NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association

The first day of school has always come with a mix of joy and anxiety as students transition from summer fun to books and bells. But the start to this new school year certainly did not look like the last—even for those headed back into the classroom.

By the end of the 2019-20 school year, about 55 million American students and teachers had been affected by COVID-19 related school closures. Many continue to be affected, with schools embracing a blend of staggered schedules and remote learning.

Others may be starting in-person, but these schools need to plan for the contingency of remote learning for students that may be forced to stay at home due to the onset of illness or in the event of a virus resurgence throughout a community. As school districts prepare for remote learning, a significant barrier remains in that too many students do not have reliable internet connectivity at home.

In many cases, however, the problem is not the availability of service; rather, customers may not be buying service that is available because they cannot afford it or for other reasons. In all cases, the ability of rural school systems and families to bridge digital gaps for this future generation is hindered.

To help make sure every student who has a connection at home can make good use of it this year, NTCA has joined the K-12 Bridge to Broadband program, an initiative from the national non-profit Digital Bridge K-12, to bring together rural broadband providers and school districts across the country.

This model has already proven successful in North Dakota where rural providers leveraged this initiative to connect with schools who had students in need, and we are hopeful it can become a roadmap for school and provider interaction across the country.

We believe this initiative could be particularly important in ensuring that the robust networks our members have worked so hard to deploy can be part of the solution for remote learning, rather than school districts and students resorting to temporary or less capable platforms or other alternatives.

By committing to a set of principles, NTCA member broadband providers who join the partnership program can express their interest in working with local school systems, who will take on bulk procurement of home internet access for those students living in homes that do not already purchase such services. NTCA is promoting the partnership program to our members, and Digital Bridge K-12 is sharing contact information for providers through a lookup tool on its website for school systems.

Like so many things, there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution to ensuring every student is connected. But we believe solutions start by having schools and broadband providers simply talk with each other at a local level. As “hometown providers” who live and raise families in the areas they serve, our members have a unique opportunity to lead rural communities in solving this issue by offering solutions to schools in their own backyards.

Shirley Bloomfield is chief executive officer of NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association, which represents nearly 850 independent, community-based telecommunications companies across rural America. With more than 30 years of experience representing the country’s smallest independent telecom operators, she seeks to sustain the vitality of rural and remote communities and the benefits broadband networks bring to the national economy. She is also a board member of the National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative and GlobalWin, an organization of women leaders in the high-tech industry. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC. 

Broadband Breakfast is a decade-old news organization based in Washington that is building a community of interest around broadband policy and internet technology, with a particular focus on better broadband infrastructure, the politics of privacy and the regulation of social media. Learn more about Broadband Breakfast.

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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