FCC Unanimously Approves $7 Billion-Plus Emergency Connectivity Fund

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The FCC has unanimously approved the framework for the $7.17 billion Emergency Connectivity Fund for remote learning service and devices.

Acting FCC chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel last week circulated the draft rules to the other commissioners Those rules do not allow for using the money to fund either the presumably immobile desk-top computers or for hyper-mobile smart phones.

The FCC had only 60 days to stand up the program, which was approved as part of President Biden's American Rescue Plan COVID-19 relief package.

Cable operators had argued that smart phones might not be "robust" enough to pass muster as eligible devices and the FCC appeared to agree.

Smart phones certainly fill the bill on the portability front, but, despite a push from the cellular industry, the FCC concluded that mobile phones, including smart phones, would also be excluded from the definition of connected devices because they "lack the full functionality students, school staff, and library patrons need to perform necessary remote learning activities, homework, or research," and in that way are not similar to laptops or tablets.

And while CTIA, the cellular association, had pushed for smart phones to be defined as eligible because they can be used as Wi-Fi hotspots, the draft rules said the FCC was unpersuaded that smart phones should meet the definition of covered hotspot "because some schools were forced to purchase smartphones to act as WiFi hotspots due to supply chain issues at the start of the pandemic."

The FCC also decided the money should not be used for desktop computers.

The FCC pointed out that the language of the legislation creating the subsidy program talks about using the money for laptops, tablets and "similar" connected devices, but that it was "significant" that "identifying desktop computers or any other stationary devices as eligible connected devices Congress identified a set of portable devices as eligible 'connected devices' and gave us discretion to determine whether other devices are similar to those portable devices."

The draft rules exclude desktops because, while it recognizes their functionality and value, the lack of portability is both a drawback for many students and library patrons and are not similar to portable devices that are, well, portable.

In other potential victories for cable operators, the FCC concluded that except where there is no service, period, the money can't be used for laying dark fiber or new networks, agreeing with cable broadband ops and others that is inconsistent with an emergency program geared to immediate, pandemic-related needs.

The rules also do not set any minimum performance standards, like high speeds, no data caps or low latency. While the FCC is all for those things, to make them requirements "would penalize schools, libraries, students, school staff, and library patrons in places where slower speed, data capped, and/or high latency services are currently the only affordable options."

“This essential $7.17 billion investment in our children, society, and future leaders has the potential to change the lives of millions of children who need support to get the most out of school—especially those in low-income communities," said FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starkes. "The Emergency Connectivity Fund will also support the many Americans who rely on their local library for connectivity and access to educational resources. By leveraging the E-Rate program’s discount matrix, the framework we adopt today will prioritize our country’s highest-need schools and libraries."

Starkes thanked his acting chairwoman for agreeing to include some "basic" questions as part of the application process so that the FCC could get a better handle on "where the Homework Gap is and how wide the gap is," an issue that is close to Rosenworcel's heart and her policy goals.

“Cable operators have a long track record of working with schools to bring broadband to unconnected students and families, including establishing hundreds of partnerships in communities across America during the pandemic that have enabled students to learn remotely from the safety of their homes," said NCAT-the Internet & Television Association. "The FCC's new Emergency Connectivity Fund is an important new program that has the potential to turbocharge these ongoing efforts. We appreciate the hard work of all the FCC commissioners in developing this program in a timely and bipartisan fashion, and our industry will continue to work side-by-side with policymakers on permanent solutions for connecting all Americans to broadband.”

“The wireless industry stepped up to keep millions of kids connected to their teachers and peers during this unprecedented pandemic, and we know there is still more work to do," said CTIA President Meredith Attwell Baker. "CTIA and our member companies thank Congress, Acting Chairwoman Rosenworcel and the FCC for working quickly to create the Emergency Connectivity Fund that will help schools close the Homework Gap with robust mobile wireless services.”

“The last year has been a very stark reminder of how important broadband connectivity is to Americans," said Senate Commerce Committee Chairwoman Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.). "As we’ve faced a pandemic, the internet has become the place to go to work, to attend school, to see friends, to help visit the doctors, and do many of the day-to-day things that we’ve all had to do in our lives. In fact, 12 million students cannot fully participate in remote learning because of a lack of quality broadband in their homes. I am glad the FCC is now implementing the $7 billion in funding we passed in the American Rescue Plan to help schools and libraries provide broadband connectivity to help students learn at home,” said Sen. Cantwell.

“FCC implementation of the Emergency Connectivity Fund Program is an important step towards ensuring the ‘homework gap’ does not grow into a more damaging learning and opportunity gap for our children, particularly those who live in communities of color, low-income households, and rural areas,” said Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), another longtime advocate for closing the homework gap via broadband subsidies for schools and libraries. “With today’s action by the FCC, schools and libraries can now deploy the more than $7 billion in E-Rate funding that was included in the American Rescue Plan for K-12 distance learning. Even as we continue to safely re-open schools in the months ahead, distance learning is not going away since many schools are using hybrid models, relying on part-time at-home learning, as well as the fact that students across the country are suffering from severe learning loss and may need to continue their home education through the summer months and during evenings. And even after the coronavirus pandemic finally ends, we cannot ignore the 21st century educational requirement that students need internet access to simply finish their homework. "

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.