FCC opens floodgates for $7.2B Emergency Connectivity Fund

FCC meeting room
Senior FCC officials said the agency has instructed the program administrator to process 50% of applications within 60 days and 70% of applications within 100 days. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) prepared to distribute another wave of broadband subsidies, this week opening applications for its $7.17 billion Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF) program.

Established in March as part of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, the ECF will provide support to schools and libraries to help them buy laptops, tablets, Wi-Fi hotspots, modems, routers and commercial broadband service to meet the off-campus connectivity needs of students, staff and library patrons. In areas where commercial broadband is unavailable, schools and libraries will be permitted to use program funding to provision their own service, senior FCC officials told journalists on a call.

Support is capped at $400 for connected devices such as tablets and laptops and $250 for Wi-Fi hotspots. The Commission did not set funding limits for modems and routers, nor commercial connectivity, though said costs for the latter are expected to range between $10 and $25 per month per person assuming bulk purchase discounts apply.

Applications for funding covering the 2021 to 2022 school year can be submitted tomorrow (June 29) through August 13. On the call, officials said the agency plans to publish details about the demand for ECF support after the application window closes. They added they expect significant crossover between participants in the FCC’s E-Rate program, which subsidizes on-campus connectivity for schools and libraries, and the ECF.

The FCC previously announced it contracted the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC) as ECF program administrator. Senior FCC officials on the call said the agency has instructed USAC to process 50% of applications within 60 days and 70% of applications within 100 days. After the close of the application filing window, USAC will issue funding commitment notifications to schools and libraries in waves. With those in hand, participants will be able to submit invoices for eligible equipment and services for reimbursement.

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The ECF is separate from the FCC’s $3.2 billion Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) program, which offers consumers a discount of up to $50 per month on broadband service or $75 per month if they reside on Tribal land. Enrollment for that program opened on May 12. As of June 7, the FCC said more than 2.3 million households across all 50 states, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and American Samoa signed up to receive benefits. More than 1,000 broadband providers are now participating in the EBB program.

Acting FCC chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel previously stated that together the EBB and ECF “will help more Americans access online education, healthcare and employment resources. They will help close the Homework Gap for students nationwide and give so many more households the ability to connect, communicate and more fully participate in modern life.”

FCC officials on the call said the ECF is meant to complement the EBB, noting there are rules in place to prevent duplicative funding. So, a household receiving broadband service through EBB would not receiving funding for connectivity through ECF. However, if a student in that same household didn’t have a laptop to log in for remote learning, the device could be covered by ECF. All devices will ultimately be owned by the school or library receiving the funding, the officials said.