Schools, Libraries Seek to Use Federal Funds to Build Their Own Internet Networks

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But they want more clarity on how the $7 billion pool of FCC money can be spent.

A $7 billion Federal Communications Commission’s program that aims to boost internet connectivity in schools and libraries will begin accepting applications for funding June 29. But while the new program allows schools and libraries to use the money to purchase Wi-Fi hot spots or laptops, some stakeholders question whether applicants should be able to use the money for long-term investments like building their own internet networks.

The FCC’s Emergency Connectivity Fund Program rules state that schools and libraries may use the funding to “support the construction of new networks to promote remote learning” but only in limited circumstances when applicants “can demonstrate that there are no available service options sufficient to support remote learning.”

Many schools purchased Wi-Fi hot spots to enable students to participate in remote learning during the coronavirus pandemic, but some rural districts discovered there wasn’t enough bandwidth in their regions to support online classes through the devices, said John Windhausen, executive director of the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition.

“The lack of bandwidth for hot spots is more common than you would have thought,” he said.

Cost is also a factor.

Faced with providing Wi-Fi hot spots to 40,000 students during the last school year (at the cost of $25 each per month), the Dallas Independent School District has embarked on a project to build cellular transmission towers to broadcast internet service to neighborhoods where low-income students live.

Because of these and other connectivity issues, “a small but growing segment of the schools” are looking into the possibility of installing their own private LTE networks, Windhausen said. LTE, which stands for long-term evolution, is a standard for wireless broadband communication for mobile devices and computers.

But schools and libraries want greater clarity from the FCC about the scenarios that would qualify for federal funding through the program.

The Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition recently held a webinar with FCC officials to address lingering questions about the new program.

Johnnay Schrieber, the deputy chief of the FCC’s Telecommunications Access Policy Division, said applicants seeking to use the program funds to establish their own networks would have to certify that they had sought service from a provider and the provider was either unable or unwilling to provide service that met their needs.

“If the available service is insufficient, the applicants will be able to make that determination and we will need documentation,” Schrieber said.

But the FCC’s answers have lacked the specificity applicants need, Windhausen said.

“One of the aspects they did not answer is what if the service is available but it is too expensive?” he said. “Can you make the argument that it is ‘not available’ because it is not affordable?”

Acknowledging the questions and concerns prospective applicants still have about the program, the FCC is hosting a public information session about it on June 25 and a training session for prospective applicants on June 23.

Andrea Noble is a staff correspondent for Route Fifty.

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