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FCC’s Emergency Connectivity Funds Ineligible for School and Library Self-Provisioned Networks

The FCC’s May 10 order said schools and libraries could not use connectivity funds to build self-provisioned networks.



Photo of John Windhausen, Executive Director of Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition

Closing the homework gap has been a top priority for Federal Communications Commission acting Chair Jessica Rosenworcel. She has a long track record advocating for Wi-Fi-enabled school buses, lamenting viral images of school children completing homework in fast food parking lots, and making the case that no child should be left offline.

At the onset of the pandemic, she pledged to use her influence at the agency to fight to increase the flexibility of the E-Rate program, saying “every option needs to be on the table.”

When the American Rescue Plan Act established the Emergency Connectivity Fund in March, a $7 billion program to connect students and library patrons to the Internet at off-campus locations, Rosenworcel had an opportunity to follow through on those promises.

She could have seized the moment to steer the program in the direction of allowing schools and libraries to build, own, and operate their own school and community networks (what the federal government refers to as self-provisioned networks). Many schools serving areas with poorly connected students already do this, but without much help from the E-rate program.

But when the rules on how to spend the money were finalized on May 10th, the FCC’s Report and Order declared that schools and libraries could not use Connectivity Funds to build self-provisioned networks, but instead could only use the funds to purchase Wi-Fi hotspots, modems, routers, and connected devices, such as laptop computers and tablets.

The one exception in which schools and libraries can use Connectivity Funds to build self-provisioned networks is in “areas where no service is available for purchase,” based on data self-reported by private ISPs.

The Report and Order indicates the agency was not convinced allowing schools and libraries to build their own networks with the funds would be consistent with the goals Congress intended for the program, as the language in the Rescue Plan states that the Connectivity Fund is limited to the purchase of eligible equipment or advanced telecommunications and information services, as defined here.

What’s striking about that FCC interpretation is that it is completely at odds with what the Biden Administration has been espousing in the American Jobs Plan: that building publicly-owned community networks and investing in future-proof infrastructure are a crucial part of closing the digital divide. This FCC decision is a recipe for cutting students off from broadband Internet access as soon as Congressional appropriations run out rather than using those funds for solutions that will operate sustainably into the future.

Not Trying to Rock the Big Telco Boat

When the Connectivity Fund was first introduced, smaller Internet Service Providers, public interest groups, and education advocates petitioned the FCC to allow for the federal funds headed to schools and libraries to be eligible for use to build school and community networks.

The Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition; the American Library Association; and the Consortium for School Networking all found that self-provisioned networks are the most cost-effective way to permanently close the homework gap. They advocated for giving schools and libraries the most flexibility to spend these dollars and maintained that local administrators are best positioned to decide how to bridge gaps in connectivity.

Instead, the Connectivity Fund is now set to give limited remote learning funds to the same corporate ISPs that gave rise to the homework gap in the first place. The program gives a strong preference to funding hotspots provided by existing wireless mobile service providers, mainly AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile. (In fact, AT&T, Verizon, and CenturyLink all lobbied the agency to disqualify [pdf] self-provisioning from being eligible for ECF support.)

The agency has also announced that the program will be forward-looking; therefore, lower priority will be placed on reimbursing schools and libraries for equipment purchased over the past year to expand existing networks or build new networks to serve students and library patrons.

E-Rate is a program that passed with support from big telcos because these monopoly providers have always been a prime beneficiary of the program. Any provision allowing ECF funds to be used on self-provisioned networks would eat away at what has been a guaranteed government income stream for these private ISPs.

There has been an open petition with the FCC, since before Ajit Pai was chairman, to permanently allow schools and libraries to be able to use E-Rate funds to build their own networks where it is cost-effective. If Rosenworcel wanted to permanently enact this change, and allow for schools and libraries to deploy more innovative, long-term and cost-effective technologies, she could have pushed to close that petition, and call for commissioners to vote on the issue. But with the FCC evenly split between Democratic and Republican Commissioners, it seems Rosenworcel is making a calculated decision to not rock the boat, challenging what has long been the status quo in a regulator that is frequently accused of having a revolving door with the industry it is supposed to regulate.

Self-Provisioned Networks Connecting Students Across the Country

At the onset of the pandemic, many local school administrators across the country scrambled to connect students to the Internet. In the process, those efforts suggested that self-provisioned broadband networks are a reliable and cost-effective way to connect students at home.

In Salt Lake Valley, Utah, technology supervisor for the Murray City School District, Jason Eyre, pioneered the construction of a private LTE network using CBRS spectrum the district obtained in 2019. Within four months (between January and April 2021), Eyre had engineered a network using approximately $77,000 of CARES Act funding to cover a 3-mile square home to many low-income students in the district. (District analysis showed that 13 percent of students did not have access to service from any existing ISPs.)

In one of SHLB’s ex parte filings to the FCC, Eyre explained that the private LTE network was a much more cost-effective solution than using hotspots from traditional wireless providers. The money he would have spent to purchase hotspots, which require a monthly service fee of $40/month, was enough money instead to build the private LTE network which will last for at least five years.

Similarly, a school district in California’s Central Valley, Lindsay Unified School District, found that deploying a community network in partnership with local government was by far the most cost-effective solution to get all students online.

LUSD initially considered using hotspots, but quickly discovered that recurring monthly subscription fees would cost the district almost $1 million annually to connect 2,000 students. Additionally, the signal strength hotspots provided were too irregular to support successful remote learning in the rural, agricultural community.

The district opted for an alternative solution in 2015 to “connect 75 percent of student homes using a meshed network of Wi-Fi access points mounted on schools, city property, and, as needed, student homes,” report Michael Calabrese and Amir Nasr for New America. The feasibility of the community network was demonstrated and LUSD moved to extend the network to more students by installing access points on all school buildings.

Finally, three years ago in Boulder Valley, Colorado, Andrew Moore (Chief Information Officer of the Boulder Valley School District) launched a wireless network to connect students at home with the help of a local ISP. “After the pandemic began last March, the BVSD expanded its TV White Space pilot program, called ConnectME, extending it beyond a few schools in Lafayette and Boulder to every single school in the district,” reports New America. BVSD was able to construct and expand the network without any E-Rate or ECF support.

The New America report documents still more examples of school districts using innovative solutions to connect students at home, including efforts in San Jose, California; Council Bluffs, Iowa; Maryland; and Texas.

The Hotspot Experience

Even if hotspots were a more cost-effective solution to get students online, many school administrators have reported that the devices often fail to work in more rural and impoverished communities.

Though there are benefits to using hotspots, such as the mobility they allow for and the relative ease of the distribution process, there are many drawbacks to relying on the devices.

Hotspots operate over mobile LTE networks and the reliability of the connection, along with the download and upload speeds attainable, can vary greatly depending on the user’s distance from a cell tower, the number of people using the network, and an area’s geography, reports DigitalBridgeK-12.

In the experience of the Southern Oregon Education Services District – which serves a total of 53,000 students, in 13 school districts, living across 10,000 square miles – Coree Kelly, SOESD’s chief information officer told us, “hotspots are only working well in the same areas where you already have a wired-up connection. If you don’t have a wired-up connection available in the area, then the hotspots don’t operate well either.”

According to Kelly, each one of the 13 districts tried to use hotspots (mostly provided by Verizon and U.S. Cellular) to connect students at home, and each one experienced a degree of failure.

“We tried trading them around, we tried other carriers’ hotspots,” Kelly explained. “Every single district that tried hotspots had some percentage of failure, ranging anywhere from 100 percent failure in some of our smaller school districts [located in the mountains of Southern Oregon] to around 10 percent,” adding that “it seemed like it was really impoverished areas that the hotspots didn’t work.”

This FCC order may allow districts to build networks in those areas, but individuals in the region may have difficulty proving to the Commission’s satisfaction that there is no private solution, as most areas where the hotspots failed were reported to be served with DSL connections by Verizon on the National Broadband Map.

Kelly spent the first week of May, alongside SHLB’s executive director John Windenhausen, educating FCC Commissioners on the vast shortcomings of hotspots and urging them to give schools and libraries flexibility to use anticipated ECF funds. Kelly was initially hopeful that the school districts SOESD serves would be able to utilize the funds to build out their own networks and was deeply disappointed with the FCC’s final ruling.

“It looks like it’s going to be more of the same, not open to innovation,” Kelly said, referencing the final language of the ECF Report and Order. “Really this shouldn’t be a monetary conversation for the vendors or for the ISPs, this should be an equity conversation, and everybody should be receiving the same Internet. That’s definitely not the way it goes now, because higher poverty areas get the worst connections, and nobody is ever looking to them to upgrade.”

“We’re in education. We don’t care about profit or loss. We just want to give our children a quality education,” he added.

Kelly thinks it’s time the FCC took a different approach. “We need to do something drastically different. We’ve spent a long time up to this point, and still, with all of the subsidies and programs…we still don’t have the connections out there,” he said.

In the meantime, between this FCC ruling and the Treasury rules that discourage cities from building effective networks in areas that already have cable service, the Biden Administration has decided on its own terms to narrowly interpret statutes in ways that benefit the cable lobbyists and are at odds with their own statements regarding structural solutions to the America’s broadband woes.

Editor’s Note: This piece was authored by Jericho Casper with the Institute for Local Self Reliance’s Community Broadband Network Initiative. Originally published on, the piece is part of a collaborative reporting effort between Broadband Breakfast and the Community Broadband Networks program at ILSR.


Anchor Associations Asking for Deadline Extension on Emergency Connectivity Fund Deployment

Associations say delays in getting fund approval and services/equipment means not getting full use of the program.



Photo of SHLB Executive Director John Windhausen Jr.

WASHINGTON, April 6, 2023 – A duo of anchor institution associations has requested Wednesday that the Federal Communications Commission extend the deadlines to implement funding from the Emergency Connectivity Fund, in part citing delays in getting and deploying equipment and services.

The Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition and the Consortium for School Networking have asked for a year extension to June 30, 2024 for the first two funding rounds if the applicant received a decision on or after March 1, 2022, and a six-month extension to the aforementioned date for the third and latest round to implement money from the program intended to keep students connected to the internet when away from school. Their request asks to waive a section of the program rules that have set those current dates in stone.

According to the waiver request filed Wednesday, funding recipients have either received a decision letter “with a narrow amount of time” to use the funding prior to the current delivery dates or have yet to receive their application approval.

“Certain factors, such as the amount of time between when an applicant received its [decision or revised decision letter] and the service delivery date, combined with the time necessary for a recipient to order, receive, and distribute equipment and services once they are procured, could inhibit an ECF recipient from fully using their requested funding prior to the service delivery dates,” the waiver request said.

The duo added that “many applicants” wait to enter contracts for the equipment and services until they get funding approval. Those that put the cart before the horse may find themselves having to renegotiate certain terms, for example in the case where services or equipment prices increased by the time they get the funding notice, the request said, adding the anchor institutions have been up against “any remaining manufacturing and global supply chain issues” from the pandemic that are contributing to delays.

The organizations gave several examples of problems faced by the anchor institutions where they would not be able to provide the 12 months of services provided by the program, including size and availability increases of buses in Georgia adding additional deployment time and a California education office that had to coordinate with multiple programs that delayed deployment.

“In these cases, even an applicant that received its [funding letters] exactly twelve months prior to the current applicable service delivery date would not be able to provide a full twelve months of ECF-supported service,” the request said.

The waiver request said if the commission does not extend the delivery dates, applicants won’t be able to use all their award funding, which will mean the regulator will have spent less than the full amount appropriated by Congress.

“It would be a far better policy outcome for the Commission to extend the deadline and allow applicants to utilize the full amount of their awarded funding rather than opening a fourth application window to award the remaining dollars,” the duo said.

The FCC has allocated just over $6.6 billion of the $7.1 billion from the ECF program, as it has been making periodic funding decisions over the months.

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Digital Learning is Here to Stay, Necessitating Multi-Sector Collaboration: Connected America Conference

The pandemic heightened the urgency of closing the digital divide, but several barriers remain.



Photo of panelists at Connected America 2023

DALLAS, March 29, 2023 — As technology continues to play a growing role in education, successful efforts at closing the digital divide will require collaboration between schools, government agencies, community organizations and the private sector, according to industry experts at the Connected America conference on Tuesday.

Lack of digital access has short-term impacts on students’ grades and test scores, as well as compounding long-term effects on their ability to succeed in the workforce — and these impacts are particularly significant for students of color, explained Ji Soo Song, digital equity advisor for the U.S. Department of Education.

The pandemic left millions of students struggling to participate in remote classes, heightening the urgency of closing the digital divide.

“In Texas alone, it was 34 percent of students that did not have full internet access,” said Tonjia Grimble, founder and CEO of STEM It Up Sports. “That’s about 1.8 million students.”

Although schools have largely returned to in-person learning, the pandemic “opened a door that can’t be closed again” in terms of technology’s role in education, said Jennifer Berkner, education lead strategist at AT&T’s FirstNet.

This shift enables a new realm of learning opportunities, but it also presents challenges for both students and educators, panelists agreed.

“Affordability is still the main barrier to access,” said Francisco Gallegos, digital inclusion program manager for the Dallas Innovation Alliance.

For some schools, their actual physical infrastructure poses a problem. “You have schools that are built in concrete — you can’t get service through concrete,” Grimble said. “If their structure itself is not sound, then they’re not going to be able to get what you’re trying to get them… More of our states need to start thinking about improving that infrastructure.”

Song pointed to a September 2022 report, stemming from the Department of Education’s Digital Equity Education Roundtables initiative, that detailed existing barriers and potential solutions for increasing digital access. Among other recommendations, the report advised that community leaders should develop public trust by partnering with a broad range of local entities, including educational institutions, internet service providers, nonprofit organizations and more.

“The education sector needs to be in collaboration with the broadband sector as the digital equity plans are developed, because we can’t have siloed solutions,” Song said. Many states have already announced opportunities for community members to contribute to the digital equity planning process, he added.

In addition to the digital equity funding established by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Song highlighted a variety of other government funding programs that can be layered to support digital learning. A “Dear Colleague” letter issued by the Office of Educational Technology in January provided guidance for maximizing this range of federal funding.

Private companies can also play a role in narrowing the digital divide, said Garner Duncan, vice president of sales for Ezee Fiber. Noting the longevity of fiber, Duncan advocated for service providers to focus on a longer-term return on investment in order to better support digital education infrastructure.

“We have returns that we have to make, but we need to be less rigid,” he said.

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Subsidies for Hotspot Devices a ‘Great Idea,’ FCC Chairwoman Says

The commission has been exploring the broadening of the E-Rate program, a high-cost program under the Universal Service Fund.



Photo of Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel (right) at the U.S. Conference of Mayors on Wednesday

WASHINGTON, January 18, 2023 — Federal Communications Commissioner Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said Wednesday at the Conference of Mayors that an agency program subsidizing mobile hotspot devices is a “great idea” and that there may be some activity on that front in the future.

The chairwoman was fielding a comment from a mayor of a Texas city, who said that his jurisdiction has a program that lends out connectivity hubs – allowing others to connect to the device – in parts of the town for residents seeking internet. He asked whether that’s something that the FCC could fund.

“That’s a great idea,” said Rosenworcel to a packed breakout room including mayors from cities across the country.

Rosenworcel noted that the commission has been exploring the broadening of the E-Rate program, a high-cost program under the Universal Service Fund that subsidizes library and school broadband connectivity.

She said the commission may be able to expand the program to encompass funding for hotspot devices.

“Stay tuned,” she added, “because I think you’re onto something.”

Groups have, in the past, urged the E-Rate program to go beyond the schools and libraries and to households. An existing program, called the Emergency Connectivity Fund, helps students get connectivity outside of school.

Affordable Connectivity Program needs mayoral outreach

The chairwoman also touched on the need for mayors to help get the word out on the Affordable Connectivity Program, a $14.2 billion initiative that provides a broadband subsidy of up-to $30 per month to low-income families and up-to $75 for households on tribal lands.

The FCC said roughly 16 million Americans are on the program, but it suspects there are many more households that are eligible. That’s why it has set up four outreach programs to get the word out.

When asked about the longevity of the ACP, the chairwoman said there is still a lot of money leftover – some estimate over $10 billion – indicating a need to get the word out to fill the gaps.

But she noted that if it comes to it, the agency may need to go back to Congress and ask for its long-term survival because it’s “too important to stop.”

Open RAN technologies encouraged for BEAD funding

The small conference also included a cybersecurity official from the White House, who provided an overview of strategies for cities to protect themselves from attacks.

Anne Neuberger, a White House advisor for cybersecurity, said one recommendation for cities applying for federal broadband funding – specifically from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program – is to use that money toward open radio access network technologies.

Open RAN is a mobile wireless protocol that allows for the interoperability of devices, allowing telecommunications companies to forgo relying on proprietary technologies from companies deemed a threat to national security, such as Huawei and ZTE.

The NTIA is currently fielding comments on how it should craft a $1.5 billion program spawned by the Chips and Science Act that seeks to explore alternatives to wireless equipment.

Last month, the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada signed onto a commitment to “ensuring the security and resilience of our telecommunications networks, including by fostering a diverse supply chain and influencing the development of future telecommunications technologies such as 6G.

“Collectively, we recognize that open and interoperable architectures are one way of creating a more open, diverse and innovative market,” a collective statement said.

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