The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is preparing to close out its Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF), which Congress authorized in 2021 to facilitate remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nationwide, eligible schools, districts, libraries, and consortia have requested over $9.2 billion through the program to provide internet connectivity and devices for instruction, research, and homework. In California, most applicants were school districts, and the majority of these funds went to districts with high percentages of students with historically tenuous internet access. Districts were also more likely to use ECF funds for connectivity services, rather than devices.
In California, school districts submitted 2,206 applications, and the ECF approved about $859 million in funding requests. The majority of these funds went to districts with high proportions of Black, Latino, or low-income students, groups that tend to have lower levels of internet access. Districts with high concentrations of Black or Latino students garnered a majority of the funds ($511 million), an outsize share given their proportion of applications. Similarly, low-income districts also received more than half of the total ($447 million), though they submitted a smaller proportion of applications.
Districts with high percentages of English Learners (ELs) represented a little less than a third of applications and received $210 million, or about a quarter of the total funds. Districts without high concentrations of any of these student groups secured $246 million.
Of course, districts vary considerably in the number of students they serve. Per student awards tended to be higher for applications submitted by districts with historically underserved populations. Low-income districts received an average of $355 per student, compared to $148 per student for all other districts. Funding for districts with high shares of Black or Latino students was $320 per student, while high-EL districts received an average of $229 per district.
ECF dollars may be used for devices, such as laptops or tablets (smartphones and desktops are not supported), or for connectivity services, such as satellite, wireless, or fiber connection for off-campus use by students or district staff. Funds may also be used for connectivity equipment, such as modems, routers, or Wi-Fi hotspots.
Overall, districts were more likely to apply for assistance with connectivity rather than devices. In addition, districts with high shares of historically underserved students were somewhat more likely to apply for assistance with connectivity than their counterparts. About 75% of district applications with high percentages of Black or Latino, low-income, or EL students specified either connectivity services or connectivity-related equipment, like modems, routers, or Wi-Fi hotspots. Other districts applied for connectivity assistance roughly 70% of the time. The vast majority of districts that specified connectivity needs wanted to use funds for broadband service itself, with modems and routers constituting only 3% of applications, and hotspots about 6%.
Among districts that used funds for devices, laptops were the most common choice, constituting about 21% of applications from districts with high proportions of underserved groups and about a quarter of those from other districts. Districts requested funds for tablets only about 3% (districts with underserved populations) and 6% (other districts) of the time.
In recent years, the ECF has represented just one effort among many federal and state initiatives to assist students in securing internet access. For instance, the federal Affordable Connectivity Program provides subsidies for high-speed internet subscriptions, though it has so far struggled to reach eligible households. As the ECF winds to a close, it will be important to evaluate its effectiveness and that of other federal and state subsidy programs that assist students in securing internet access. Ensuring that unserved and underserved communities are able to take advantage of these funds will be key to narrowing the digital divide in our state.