FCC Moves Ahead with New $7.1 Billion E-Rate Program to Support Remote Learning

The FCC is beginning to roll out the new $7.1 billion Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF), which should be a huge step forward in efforts to close the nation’s homework gap. The ECF, which was included in the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, would provide support to schools or libraries to purchase eligible equipment or advanced telecommunications and information services (or both) for use by students and staff at locations other than the school and library patrons at locations other than the library. The FCC’s Wireline Competition Bureau released a Public Notice on March 16, seeking comments on the best ways to provision support from the ECF. The ECF:

  • Reimburses 100% of costs associated with the purchase of eligible equipment and/or advanced telecommunications and information services, except that reimbursement for costs associated with any eligible equipment may not exceed an amount to be determined by the FCC;
  • Provides support from funding made available from the ECF and not from universal service contributions;
  • Defines “connected device” as a laptop computer, tablet computer, or similar end-user device that is capable of connecting to advanced telecommunications and information services;
  • Defines “eligible equipment” as Wi-Fi hotspots, modems, routers, devices that combine a modem and router, and connected devices; and
  • Defines the “COVID-19 Emergency Period” as beginning on January 27, 2020, and ending on the June 30th that first occurs after the date that is one year after the date that the Secretary of Health and Human Services determines that a public health emergency no longer exists.

The FCC is inviting interested parties to comment on the proposed rules until April 5. Reply comments are due April 23. The Commission is asking how ECF support may be distributed fairly and efficiently, including suggestions for applying, competitive bidding, reimbursement, and prioritization of funding. Specific questions raised for comment in the Public Notice include:

  • Should the FCC adopt specific performance goals and measures with respect to the administration of the Fund similar to E-Rate?
  • Has the Act sufficiently defined certain terms (e., “eligible equipment and services,” “advanced telecommunications and information services,” “eligible schools and libraries” etc.) or should the definitions be more specific, expansive, or restrictive?
  • Do you agree with the FCC’s proposal to limit eligible advanced telecommunications and information services to those services that can be supported by and delivered with eligible equipment as defined? Are there any specific services currently eligible as category one services in the existing E-Rate program that the FCC should consider ineligible for the ECF? Should funding for dark fiber and construction of new networks, including the construction of self-provisioned networks, be excluded from funding?
  • Should “advanced telecommunications and information services” also include costs for items such as equipment necessary to deliver services to connected devices, installation, taxes, and fees?
  • Should the FCC’s current speed benchmarks apply as a minimum standard here?
  • Should the FCC impose restrictions on what locations can receive wireline and fixed wireless services supported by ECF for remote learning?
  • Should the FCC reimburse for purchases of eligible equipment and services made by eligible schools and libraries since January 27, 2020?
  • What amount is reasonable to reimburse applicants for previous purchases or pay for new purchases? Should the FCC establish a range of costs reasonable for each category of equipment and service eligible for funding through the ECF? Should costs vary depending on location?

JSI will continue to provide updates as the rules governing the ECF are hammered out and finalized. We plan to review and discuss the more detailed regulations on our next E-Rate Connect Call (requires a subscription to JSI’s E-Rate Connect bundle). If you are not currently subscribed to JSI’s E-Rate Connect Bundle and would like more information, please contact Chresanthe or Terri, listed below.

If you would like more information on the ECF or are interested in filing comments, please contact Chresanthe Staurulakis in the Maryland office at 301-459-7590 or Terri DeLong in the Texas office at 512-338-0473.