School kids in class using a digital tablet

The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan bill that President Biden is signing today includes $7.1 billion for an Emergency Connectivity Fund that would provide additional E-rate funding for emergency connectivity and devices for schools and libraries.

The money in The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 will support schools and students, as well as staff and library patrons. Eligible schools and libraries will be able to use the funds for connectivity and purchase of Wi-Fi hotspots, modems, routers and connected devices.

The COVID-19 pandemic almost certainly has exacerbated the digital divide. News stories of students sitting outside fast food restaurants – which were cited by Acting FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel in her statement lauding the creation of the Emergency Connectivity Fund – illustrated and symbolized the depth of the challenge.

Rosenworcel sees the American Rescue Plan E-rate funding as a vital step forward. “Recent estimates suggest the Homework Gap may affect as many as 17 million kids with recent data suggesting as many as one in three Black, Latinx, and American Indian/Alaska Native students lack high-speed internet access at home,” she said in the press release. “The Emergency Connectivity Fund could make a major difference in our ability to help these families and students.”

The hope is that funding can turn the tide on one dimension of hopelessness the pandemic has caused. That pain was attested to by FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks in a separate press release about the American Rescue Plan E-rate funding.

“A few weeks ago, I met with Detroit middle school students to talk about their online learning experience,” Starks said. “They told me that a large share of their classmates cannot participate, and many have quit virtual learning out of frustration with slow broadband speeds and inadequate devices. Those students are not alone. An estimated 12 million students remain locked out of the virtual classroom.”

Changes to E-rate funding increases may not be over. The Hill reported today that House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-SC) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) today will reintroduce The Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act. If it became law, the act would invest $94 billion in expanding broadband infrastructure. The bill, as written now, includes $2 billion more for the E-Rate program.

When signed into law, the American Rescue Plan E-rate funding would be the latest example of changes made to the E-rate program amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

On April 1, 2020, the FCC waived the service implementation deadline for special construction for all funding year 2019 applicants and extended this deadline by one year, from June 30, 2020, to June 30, 2021.

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