On May 10, 2021, the FCC unanimously adopted final rules in a Report and Order to implement the $7.17 billion Emergency Connectivity Fund Program (“ECF Program”). The ECF Program is a fund that enables “schools and libraries to purchase laptop and tablet computers, Wi-Fi hotspots, and broadband connectivity for students, school staff, and library patrons in need during the COVID-19 pandemic.” The ECF Program was funded by the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 signed by President Biden in early March. Along with the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program (“EBB Program”), the ECF provides significant, pandemic-related expenditures addressing the digital divide, funded outside of the existing federal Universal Service Fund programs.
With these rules, the FCC sets in motion a process for schools and libraries to receive funding for 100% of purchases to provide remote learning and remote library services during the pandemic. This fund will be a significant one-time opportunity for applicants and service providers and is expected to see high demand for funding.
The Report and Order adopted by the FCC establishes the rules and policies that govern the ECP Fund. The FCC designated the Universal Service Administrative Company (“USAC”) as the program administrator. Schools and libraries that are eligible for support under the E-Rate Program are also eligible to request and receive support through the ECF Program.
Funding Window for School Year 2021-22 Purchases Prioritized
In a change from the draft order previously released by the Commission, the Report and Order prioritizes purchases to be used for providing remote learning and remote library services in the next school year (starting July 1). USAC will open a 45-day ECF Program filing window for purchases for the upcoming year. A date for this window has not been set, but FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said she expects it to open in early June.
The filing window will be available for purchases for use during the period from July 1, 2021 through June 30, 2022. Due to the emergency nature of this program, the FCC does not require competitive bidding for eligible purchases (like is required under the E-Rate program). However, it sets a cap for eligible equipment reimbursement of $400 for laptops and connected devices and $250 for Wi-Fi hotspots. For other eligible equipment (modems, routers and devices that combine the two), the FCC did not set a maximum reimbursement but delegated to the Wireline Bureau to provide guidance on reasonable expenses. The FCC similarly did not set a maximum reimbursement for “advanced communications services” but tasked the Bureau and USAC to identify “outliers” beyond an expected $10 to $25 monthly cost per month. The ECF will not fund self-provisioning or the construction of new networks, except in the case where it is demonstrated that no commercial service is available to the area.
Moreover, the FCC sets per-location and per-user limitations on the availability of funding. Reimbursement may be sought only for one fixed broadband service per location, one connected device per user and one Wi-Fi hotspot per user. In addition, the FCC clarified that Wi-Fi hotspots on school buses and bookmobiles are eligible for reimbursement under the ECF.
Funding is limited to uses made primarily for “educational purposes.” To ensure that devices and services are used primarily for educational purposes, the FCC requires schools and libraries to restrict access to users with appropriate credentials (i.e., a student ID or library card). Schools will be required to certify that they are only that they are only seeking support for eligible equipment provided to students and school staff who lacked access to connected devices sufficient to engage in remote learning. The FCC will also require schools to certify that they are only seeking support for eligible services provided to students and school staff who lacked broadband services sufficient to engage in remote learning. “Staff” includes only those staff members engaging in remote teaching or otherwise providing educational services to students (and would otherwise lack access to connected devices and broadband connections).
If funding is available after the initial filing window for 2021-22 purchases, the FCC will open a window for funding of purchase already made by schools or libraries to provide remote connectivity. Specifically, this filing window would cover purchases made by applicants between March 1, 2020 (when most jurisdictions closed schools during the pandemic) and June 30, 2021. USAC and the Bureau will announce when this window will open (assuming funding remains available).