By Michael Flood
New Funding Eligibility
For transportation directors, finding adequate funding to support school bus Wi-Fi solutions has historically posed a significant challenge. Federal programs established to fund Wi-Fi connectivity solutions for students – such as the FCC E-Rate program, for example – often do not make allowances for in-vehicle connectivity, leaving transportation directors without access to these crucial funding sources.
The tides are changing, though, as the FCC’s recent announcement of the Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF) extends eligibility to transportation departments looking to support their K-12 students with Wi-Fi access.
Released on May 11, 2021, the ECF Program allocates $7.17 billion specifically for the purpose of providing 100% reimbursement for schools and libraries looking to provide adequate, reliable broadband connectivity to students, households, and communities whose need has heightened during the pandemic. As part of this legislation, the FCC details that school districts may use these funds – typically allocated to building and library Internet connectivity – to purchase mobile school bus Wi-Fi solutions.
In paragraph 61 of the order, the FCC details the application and support for this allowance:
“Consistent with our decision above… we allow schools and libraries to use Emergency Connectivity Fund Program support to purchase Wi-Fi hotspots for school buses and bookmobiles to provide off-campus broadband services to students, school staff, and library patrons who currently lack sufficient broadband access. […] In addition, we are aware that a number of schools and libraries have already undertaken initiatives to equip school buses and bookmobiles with Wi-Fi hotspots during the COVID-19 emergency period and have found such initiatives to be particularly effective.”
Implications for School Transportation
This news has hugely positive implications for the school transportation world. For districts who may have been interested in offering school bus Wi-Fi in the past but were unable to fit it into the yearly budget, securing 100 percent reimbursable funding can be the support they need to bring this connectivity to their students. This support will allow transportation departments to begin realizing the profound benefits of this technology, which to date remain largely untapped.
Transportation directors like Billy Huish, who manages transportation for Farmington Municipal Schools in New Mexico, have an opportunity through school bus Wi-Fi solutions to not only meaningfully impact the academic success of students but also to make the school bus a safer, calmer place – leading to fewer behavioral incident reports and increased driver retention rates. Huish reports that the Kajeet school bus Wi-Fi solution he has installed on 29 buses powers an average of 900 hours of learning time per week across all vehicles.
Likewise, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, school bus Wi-Fi has provided a safe and effective way for districts to get connectivity out to students – many of whom had no other way to access their remote learning classes and assignments. Kevin Schwartz, chief technology officer at Austin Independent School District, reports that their 534 Wi-Fi-equipped school buses have been a lifeline and learning link for students during this time of continued school closures. During the height of the pandemic, the district situated each of these buses in strategic locations across the district to support its 80,000 students with safe, filtered, and accessible connectivity.
Looking ahead, the inclusion of school buses in this FCC ruling indicates that school buses will be included in school- and district-wide strategies and funding decisions into the future. Over the past decade, we have all witnessed school buses evolve from modes of transportation alone into full-fledged extensions of the classroom. And for students who need it most, the ability to access Wi-Fi while on or around the school bus can be a gamechanger for their academic success in an increasingly digital world.
For those looking to gain more insights into determining eligibility, understanding how the application process will work, and best practices for applying, here are two school transportation-focused webinars to check out:
These webinars are available exclusively to NAPT® ACTS! Subscribers.
The first application window accepts funding requests for purchases made between July 1, 2021, and June 30, 2022. Should there remain funding after this first round of applications, the FCC plans to open a second application window, during which schools and libraries may submit funding requests for purchases made between March 1, 2020, and June 30, 2021, as a retroactive COVID-19 relief response.
Michael Flood is SVP and general manager of education at Kajeet, the #1 provider of school bus Wi-Fi solutions. We work with over 2,700 school districts across the U.S. to equip their fleets with safe, reliable, multi-carrier, CIPA-compliant Wi-Fi – enabling students to connect to learning while on or around the school bus. Our dedicated Account Managers and Customer Support are ready to help you roll out a connectivity program that is right for your district and will be by your side through any challenges that come your way. Learn more and schedule a consultation with us.