Leveraging the growing resources for broadband connectivity for schools
For some time now, improving broadband internet access has been a priority for school districts and other political subdivisions across Ohio. Moreover, one of the main challenges faced by school districts in their efforts to maintain continued learning during the COVID-19 pandemic was internet connectivity, or lack thereof. Recent expansions in both federal funding and other resources promises to make the goal of “last mile connectivity” a reality, assuming schools and other community leaders are able to mobilize quickly to take advantage of the opportunities.
The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA), enacted on March 11, 2021, will funnel $4.5 billion to Ohio school districts. These monies, commonly referred to as ESSER III or ARP ESSER, can be applied toward school district needs arising between March 13, 2020, and September 30, 2024. ESSER funds can be used for a broad spectrum of purposes, allowing school districts to be flexible and creative by building on existing resources to expand broadband internet capabilities. Specifically, school districts need to align their use of these monies with the 15 categories of legislatively-established allowances, while considering five core questions:
- Will the proposed use of funds prevent, prepare for and respond to coronavirus?
- Is it an allowable use of funds under the various ESSER funds?
- Is it reasonable and necessary?
- Does it promote equity?
- Does it support returning students to the classroom?
School districts must create an ARP ESSER Plan that details how the school district plans to spend its ESSER III allocation and post it to the district’s website by August 20, 2021. It is within this plan where the school district will identify the proposed use of funds for broadband purposes.
Emergency connectivity fund
In recent years, internet access within school facilities has been advanced through E-Rate, the federal funding program responsible for facilitating internet connectivity. Through this program, schools have been able to fund acquisition of equipment and services to enhance internal connectivity and to bring broadband internet access into, and provide it throughout, instructional buildings that comprise a school campus. However, the E-Rate program did not contemplate the remote learning needs that arose during the pandemic. For example, E-Rate does not provide funding to facilitate off-campus internet access for students and staff.
Another new program created specifically to address the remote access shortfall is the federal Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF). The ECF is a $7.17 billion program also funded by ARPA to help schools and libraries support and facilitate remote learning. The program will provide funding to schools and libraries for the reasonable costs of eligible equipment and services that can be provided to students, teachers and library patrons who lack broadband access or lack connected devices, such as laptop or tablet computers. The ECF application filing window opened on June 29, 2021, and will close on August 13, 2021, so school districts and libraries must act quickly to secure funding through this program. Eligible schools, libraries and consortia of eligible schools and libraries can request funding to purchase eligible equipment and services during an expenditure period running from July 1, 2021, to June 30, 2022. Those that are eligible for support under the E-Rate program are eligible to request and receive support through the ECF program, but school districts do not need to be current E-Rate participants in order to apply.
In addition to the purchase of eligible equipment and services, the ECF program can be used to directly fund the construction of new networks and the purchase of equipment needed for datacasting services in certain circumstances where a school or library can demonstrate that there are no available service options sufficient to support remote learning for its students, school staff or library patrons. In those situations where service is available but could use bolstering, there are also strategies that can be used to help enhance the existing infrastructure.
Collaboration with other political entities
These and other funding resources available to school districts can be further leveraged when combined with similar funding resources and tools of other political entities in your community. The state, counties and municipalities across Ohio, and all manner of collaborations and consortia of these entities, are teaming together to collectively leverage resources and structure comprehensive solutions to achieve “last mile” connectivity. Through use of co-development, co-location and various funding agreements, collaborations are working to build out the systems. Cities and counties make available the networks of rights-of-way and existing pole rights. School districts and other public landowners in the region make available existing conduit and tall structures for collocation of fiber and broadcast equipment. Port authorities or other public issuers are facilitating financing of infrastructure improvements, using the funding resources of other benefiting public entities and opening up a competitive environment for internet service providers to operate in previously underserved regions.
While school districts may have new resources to help meet their immediate connectivity needs, many are finding that collaboration with larger community- and region-wide projects promise to deliver more bang for their buck. Indeed, taking advantage of the short windows for application and/or spending allocations under the ECF program and ESSER may require teaming up with existing initiatives to save time and money.
Structuring projects in a way to meet the eligibility requirements can be approached in number of ways, depending upon your specific project needs. The first step is to evaluate the needs of your district and assess whether those needs meet the eligibility criteria for the various programs. Where the answer to that question is no, or where time constraints demand, consider whether other leaders in your community are already out of the gate on projects that will help you meet your needs. Just like the various technologies that go into building out a reliable, robust broadband system, coverage of a district may be best achieved by piecing together various resources from and among many participating entities.