As many schools prepare for remote learning this fall, access issues caused by inconsistent high-speed Internet access throughout the country remain unsolved — putting millions of students in danger of falling behind this year.

Accessing video conferencing tools like Zoom requires reliable high-speed Internet access, which is not available in rural areas and cost-prohibitive for some low-income families. All of these issues became apparent in March when schools shifted to online instruction in the early days of COVID-19. 

Five months later, experts are frustrated that the country is no closer to a solution than it was at the start of the pandemic. 

“The lack of connectivity became clear in the spring … and then it hasn’t been solved since then,” Angela Siefer, executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, told Law 360. “There were a series of Band-Aids — well-intentioned, absolutely necessary Band-Aids — and some places have found more long-term solutions. But many have not because it is a huge problem.”

Lack of funding from Congress has left many communities and school districts to find their own solutions to this problem. Some have pursued partnerships with Internet providers to offer free or low-cost service to families, while others are forming nonprofits to pursue grants and government funding to expand broadband access.

One of those partnerships in Chattanooga, Tennessee, HCS EdConnect, secured $8.4 million that will be used to give Wi-Fi routers to 28,500 students in Hamilton County.

“They have a center point doing this work,” Siefer said. “I wish more communities had someone who steps up and says, ‘This is our job.'”

In Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan recently announced $10 million in grants to expand broadband access across the state. However, any changes implemented as a result of the funding will not be available when the new school year begins this fall.

That’s the same story in Rocky Mount, Virginia, where a $4.6 million project to build eight new communications towers won’t be complete until the end of 2021, and in Mississippi, where fiber- optic upgrades are scheduled to be finished at the end of the year.

In the spring, some schools enabled Wi-Fi access in parking lots or on school buses that drove around to serve students at their homes. With long-term infrastructure changes still months or years away, they’re looking to expand those solutions this fall and utilize funding from the Federal Communications Commission to do so.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has pushed back against these plans, saying that the law prohibits federal E-Rate funds from being used to subsidize Internet access at private homes because it is only approved for use in schools and libraries. 

In a letter to Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Pai said, “it is critical that parents and students stay connected so that they can participate in online learning from home during this crisis,” but the rules about what the FCC can and can’t do remain clear.

“[W]e face a major barrier: The Communications Act, which the FCC is duty-bound to administer,” Pai wrote, adding that the Act “expressly limits the FCC’s use of E-Rate program funding to broadband and other services delivered to school ‘classrooms’ and libraries. Connectivity and devices supplied to students at home unfortunately do not qualify for E-Rate support under the law.” 


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