Libraries Eligible for Billions in Federal Funding to Improve Connectivity for Residents

The Emergency Connectivity Fund Program, announced by the Federal Communications Commission, will help libraries purchase laptops, Wi-Fi hot spots and more for patrons.

Libraries across the country will be eligible for federal funding to purchase laptops, tablets, Wi-Fi hot spots and other equipment to help patrons access reliable internet outside of library facilities, the Federal Communications Commission announced.

The $7.17 billion Emergency Connectivity Fund Program, part of the American Rescue Plan, aims to help close the “homework gap” by making it easier for teachers and students to participate in virtual learning via consistent access to reliable internet. The funding is available for schools, but also for libraries, which have found creative ways to bridge the digital divide throughout the pandemic by bringing Wi-Fi to underserved parts of their communities.

“It will make it possible for libraries nationwide to offer their patrons—including students—new ways to go online and bring connectivity home,” FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement.

The rules of the program, finalized last week, allow eligible libraries to apply for funding for future purchases of eligible equipment, “including Wi-Fi hotspots, modems, routers, and connected devices, as well as advanced telecommunications and information services.” If money is left after the initial round of funding, the FCC will accept proposals for reimbursement of “reasonable costs” incurred by schools and libraries to “meet the unmet needs” of staff and patrons during the pandemic.

Any library eligible for support under the federal E-Rate Program—an initiative that helps schools and libraries access affordable broadband—also can apply for the emergency connectivity funding. A handful of libraries are excluded from the connectivity program, including for-profit libraries, those with endowments of more than $50 million, and libraries whose budgets are not completely separate from schools. 

The funds will be administered by the nonprofit Universal Service Administrative Company, with oversight by the FCC.

The initial 45-day application period is expected to open in June and close in August for eligible purchases made between July 1, 2021 and June 30, 2022. Wi-Fi hot spots are capped at $250 and laptops and tablets are capped at $400, but there are no price limits for broadband services. And if applicants can prove that a specific location has no commercially available internet, they can seek funding to construct a new network, according to the rules.

Libraries have long lent laptops and other communications devices to patrons, but some have also begun gifting them to those in need. In the last year, libraries have sought donations of used computers and partnered with tech organizations to distribute the technology to students having trouble participating in remote learning and adults struggling to work from home.

“Libraries have always done this sort of thing, depending on their available resources,” said Paul Negron, senior communications manager for the Urban Libraries Council. “The connectivity fund will help facilitate more of it.”

Other details of the program, including the specifics of funding distribution, remain unclear, Negron said, though it’s likely that money will be allocated to states, counties and cities, via block grants, which will then trickle down to libraries.

“We’ve been instructing our members that the best thing they can do to prepare is to dedicate a team member to following these updates,” he said. “To access all the funding that’s available to them, they’ve really got to connect with the state and city agencies that will be administering these grants.”

After months of advocating to be included in federal relief plans, library organizations said the rules were a welcome acknowledgment of the role their members have played in keeping communities connected throughout the pandemic.

“Since the dial-up days, libraries across the country have stood in the digital gaps to connect our communities, especially for people who would otherwise be left behind,” Julius C. Jefferson Jr., president of the American Library Association, said in a statement. “The pandemic has brought to light the yawning depth of those digital gaps as well as the extent to which Americans rely on libraries to fill them. ALA will continue to work to make sure libraries have the information they need to apply for and receive these emergency funds to serve more people.”

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a senior reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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