May 20, 2021
E-rate News Flash
Federal Communications Commission Releases Rules for New COVID-19 Emergency Connectivity Fund Program
On May 11, 2021, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released rules for the $7.17 billion Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF), a temporary federal program to enable schools to purchase internet service and laptops or tablets to connect students and school staff that lack adequate access necessary to support remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.
High-Level Summary of ECF
All schools that are eligible to participate in the E-rate program are also eligible to participate in the ECF. Funding through the program is limited to the purchase of commercially-available broadband services and connected devices for students and school staff who would otherwise lack access to Internet connectivity and devices sufficient to engage in remote learning at locations away from a school campus. The Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC) is designated as the ECF program administrator and will use existing E-rate forms modified to the ECF program to speed applications, approvals, and reimbursements.
USAC will open an application window over the summer for prospective purchases for the upcoming school year expended during the period of July 1, 2021 through June 30, 2022. If sufficient funds are available after the initial application window, USAC may open a second application window for retroactive expenditures over the period from March 1, 2020 through June 30, 2021.
Equipment and Services Eligible for Reimbursement
Pending funding availability, USAC will reimburse 100% of the costs of eligible services and devices to connect unserved and underserved students and school staff that lack access sufficient for remote learning, with a few limitations.
Broadband Internet Service
- Must be commercially-available service sufficient for remote learning. Examples of eligible services include fixed broadband service (cable, DSL, fiber, wireless), mobile broadband service (cellular, wireless), and satellite broadband service.
- There is a limited exception for areas where no commercially-available broadband service options exist. If true and supported by evidence, schools may seek funding for construction of new broadband networks such as private LTE.
Equipment Necessary for a Broadband Internet Service to Operate
- WiFi Hotspots – reimbursement capped at $250 per device
- Laptops and Tablets – reimbursement capped at $400 per device
- A waiver may be requested on device caps for users with disabilities
The following equipment and services are not eligible for reimbursement: desktops, smartphones, computer peripherals not built into a laptop or tablet such as stand-alone microphones and cameras, filtering and cybersecurity tools, videoconferencing equipment and software.
There are additional limitations to funding. Funding is limited to a single fixed broadband Internet service per physical address with the exception of multi-tenant housing in which case it is limited to one per tenant address. Further, funding for connected devices and mobile wireless broadband Internet service is limited to a single device and service per student and school staff member. The program will not support more than one device per student and staff member in the event of breakage or loss. There is also the expectation that the equipment and devices purchased with ECF be used for a minimum of three years.
Because broadband connectivity to a school campus is funded through the traditional E-rate program, ECF is limited to broadband connections to locations away from a school campus wherever remote learning occurs. This may primarily occur at the homes of students and school staff, but services to other locations may also be eligible for support. WiFi on school buses is eligible for support through ECF as well as locations such as community centers, churches, or other locations where students and school staff may congregate to participate in remote learning.
No Duplication of Funding Resources
The FCC is prohibiting reimbursements under the ECF program if services and equipment were reimbursed through other federal and state programs earmarked for pandemic relief such as:
- Other federal pandemic relief programs (e.g., CARES Act, Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, or other provisions of the American Rescue Plan)
- State programs specifically targeted to providing funding for eligible equipment and services
- Other external sources of funding or gifts specifically targeted to providing funding for eligible equipment and services
Due to the emergency nature of the fund, there are no FCC-imposed competitive bidding requirements for ECF, unlike the E-rate program. However, schools must certify that they have followed state and local competitive bidding requirements for the purchases for which they are seeking reimbursement under the ECF program.
Schools will be asked to support how they determined that the ECF-funded broadband services and devices are being delivered to students and school staff that lack adequate access necessary to support remote learning. On their applications schools will be asked to answer a set of questions regarding the specific unmet needs that existed at the start of the pandemic and how the ECF program funds are being used to address remaining unmet needs. Schools will also be requested to provide a narrative of how they obtained the data to answer these questions and the timing of the data collections or needs assessments.
Under the ECF, schools may seek reimbursement directly from USAC for their approved services or may ask their service provider to invoice USAC directly for the reimbursement. However, unlike the E-rate program, service providers may opt out of invoicing USAC for ECF reimbursements. If a school will rely on a service provider to invoice USAC for ECF program funds, it must first confirm this in writing, preferably in a legally binding agreement, and must report this fact on its ECF application. USAC will allow schools to seek reimbursement directly either by requesting reimbursement after paying service provider invoices up front or by asking for a prepayment of expenditures upon receipt of an invoice and then promptly paying the service provider within 30 days of receipt of ECF program funds.
Schools participating in ECF must register with the System Award Management (SAM) platform for federal awards. It is recommended that schools search to see if they are already registered, and if not, then initiate a registration as soon as possible at the SAM website: https://sam.gov/SAM/pages/public/index.jsf.
Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA)
In its rules, the FCC clarified that compliance with CIPA is required for any school-owned computers if the school also receives ECF funding for broadband Internet service or the school receives funding for Internet access and/or internal connections in the traditional E-rate program. CIPA compliance is not required if the school receives ECF funding for laptops or tablets but it does not also receive ECF funding for broadband Internet service or funding for Internet access and/or internal connections in the traditional E-rate program. Finally, schools are not required to comply with CIPA on non-school-owned computers.
Documentation Retention and Audits
Schools receiving ECF program funds may be subject to audit. The FCC has adopted for ECF the stringent documentation retention standards it also has for E-rate: schools must retain all documentation supporting compliance with program rules for a minimum of 10 years from the receipt of service. Schools will be required to prepare and maintain detailed inventories of broadband Internet plans, equipment, and devices.
Links to Further Information
Schools are encouraged to review the FCC’s order which describes the program rules and includes the various certifications required for the program: https://docs.fcc.gov/public/attachments/FCC-21-58A1.pdf.
USAC will be issuing further guidance on the ECF program in the coming weeks. Please sign up at this website to receive notifications on ECF: https://survey.alchemer.com/s3/6296809/Emergency-Connectivity-Fund.
What Schools Can Work on Now
USAC may open the initial 45-day application period for anticipated expenditures for July 1, 2021 through June 30, 2022 as early as next month. Schools may start preparing for the application window by undertaking the following activities:
- Conduct a needs assessment to determine how many students and educators lack home Internet access and/or a computing device appropriate for education for July 1, 2021 - June 30, 2022
- Procure quotes or contracts for services following state and local competitive bidding requirements. Do not initiate purchase until July 1, 2021 if seeking ECF program funds
- Confirm with USAC that your school district is set up in the E-rate Productivity Center (EPC) application portal by calling (888) 203-8100
- Confirm and/or initiate registration in the System Award Management (SAM) portal at https://sam.gov/SAM/pages/public/index.jsf
- If planning on applying for reimbursement directly from USAC, ensure FCC Form 498 is filed in EPC - this contains your organization’s banking information - and determine if you have credentials to file the Billed Entity Applicant Reimbursement (BEAR) form - FCC Form 472
Resources for California Schools
The California Department of Education and K12HSN will be holding informational webinars and posting them to K12HSN’s website. The website will also include a frequently asked questions section: https://www.k12hsn.org/resources/erate/ecf.
- Preliminary Overview of Emergency Connectivity Fund: recording and materials posted at https://www.k12hsn.org/resources/erate/ecf
- The Emergency Connectivity Fund Program Details and Preparing for the Application Process: May 27, 2021, noon to 1:30 p.m. PST
- The Emergency Connectivity Fund Program Completing the Initial Application: June 17, 2021, noon to 1:30 p.m. PST
There will be further webinars scheduled on best practices for completing the application and reimbursement process as well as preparing for program audits.
You may sign up for the webinars by e-mailing email@example.com.