Billions of Federal Dollars to Close Broadband Gaps are About to Start Flowing

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The FCC has launched a program that provides $50 subsidies to help households pay internet bills and also approved rules for a $7 billion fund for libraries and schools.

More help is on the way for families and students who are unable to afford high-speed internet, as the federal government begins to distribute over $10 billion dollars included in coronavirus relief legislation for broadband and tech-related initiatives.

The federal government launched a $3.2 billion program Wednesday that provides subsidies to lower-income households to cover part of the cost of broadband internet service. Meanwhile, the Federal Communications Commission approved a rule this week setting guidelines for  a separate program that will provide schools and libraries with $7 billion to help them purchase laptops, tablets and Wi-Fi hot spots.

High-speed internet became essential during the coronavirus pandemic for many students and people forced to work remotely. For students without service, or with poor connections, remote learning turned what otherwise might’ve been a homework gap into “a full-fledged education gap,” said FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel.

Taken together, the more than $10 billion in federal investments are meant to help the approximately 17 million students across the United States who do not have high speed internet connections in the home that were necessary to participate in remote learning. 

The FCC’s Emergency Broadband Benefit program, which offers $50 a month to help eligible households pay their internet or mobile phone bills, opened for enrollment Wednesday. The program can also provide $100 toward buying a laptop or tablet. More than 825 internet service providers, including Comcast and AT&T, have signed up to participate in the initiative.

The temporary program will offer the benefit until the money runs out, but officials declined to estimate how long it could last or how many families will sign up for subsidies.

Households are eligible for the program if they use federal assistance like food stamps or Medicaid or if children rely on reduced-price school lunch programs. Individuals also qualify if they received a federal Pell Grant to cover higher education costs during the current year or if they suffered a large loss in income due to the pandemic.

The Emergency Broadband Benefit Program was created under legislation that Congress passed and former President Donald Trump signed in late December last year. The funding that will go to schools and libraries was approved as part of the American Rescue Plan, the pandemic relief law that President Biden signed in March.  

During a call with reporters, Department of Education officials said that the agency intends to advertise the emergency benefit program to about 6.5 million current Pell Grant recipients and to students at 30,000 high-poverty schools designated as eligible for the Community Eligibility Provision.

The FCC’s approval of rules to guide the $7 billion investment in technology in schools and libraries will also help to close the connectivity gap, Rosenworcel said. The money can be used to purchase connected devices or Wi-Fi hotspots that students can use to engage in remote learning in the upcoming school year. If additional money is leftover, the schools and libraries will be able to apply for reimbursement for purchases they’ve made previously for eligible equipment.  

“Our goal in the end is to make sure 100% of students in this country can go online to participate in their education,” Rosenworcel said.

Andrea Noble is a staff correspondent with Route Fifty.

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