But when the rules on how to spend the money were finalized on May 10th, the
FCC's Report and Order declared that schools and libraries could not use
Connectivity Funds to build self-provisioned networks, but instead could
only use the funds to purchase Wi-Fi hotspots, modems, routers, and
connected devices, such as laptop computers and tablets.
The one exception in which schools and libraries can use Connectivity Funds
to build self-provisioned networks is in “areas where no service is
available for purchase,” based on data self-reported by private ISPs.
The Report and Order indicates the agency was not convinced allowing schools
and libraries to build their own networks with the funds would be consistent
with the goals Congress intended for the program, as the language in the
Rescue Plan states that the Connectivity Fund is limited to the purchase of
eligible equipment or advanced telecommunications and information services,
as defined here.
What's striking about that FCC interpretation is that it is completely at
odds with what the Biden Administration has been espousing in the American
Jobs Plan: that building publicly-owned community networks and investing in
future-proof infrastructure are a crucial part of closing the digital
divide. This FCC decision is a recipe for cutting students off from
broadband Internet access as soon as Congressional appropriations run out
rather than using those funds for solutions that will operate sustainably
into the future.
Not Trying to Rock the Big Telco Boat
When the Connectivity Fund was first introduced, smaller Internet Service
Providers, public interest groups, and education advocates petitioned the
FCC to allow for the federal funds headed to schools and libraries to be
eligible for use to build school and community networks.
The Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition; the American Library
Association; and the Consortium for School Networking all found that
self-provisioned networks are the most cost-effective way to permanently
close the homework gap. They advocated for giving schools and libraries the
most flexibility to spend these dollars and maintained that local
administrators are best positioned to decide how to bridge gaps in
Instead, the Connectivity Fund is now set to give limited remote learning
funds to the same corporate ISPs that gave rise to the homework gap in the
first place. The program gives a strong preference to funding hotspots
provided by existing wireless mobile service providers, mainly AT&T,
Verizon, and T-Mobile. (In fact, AT&T, Verizon, and CenturyLink all lobbied
the agency to disqualify [pdf] self-provisioning from being eligible for ECF
The agency has also announced that the program will be forward-looking;
therefore, lower priority will be placed on reimbursing schools and
libraries for equipment purchased over the past year to expand existing
networks or build new networks to serve students and library patrons.