UniteGPS – Did you know that U.S. districts can apply for funding from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to install school bus WiFi and other broadband technology?

Part of the FCC’s Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF), the first round of applications began on July 1, 2022. Now the FCC will soon open its third cycle from April 28 until May 13, 2022, with up to $1 billion available to more recipients to acquire equipment and services including WiFI hotspots, modems, routers, laptops, and tablets.

During the first two application windows, the FCC reportedly received over $6.4 billion in funding requests. Based on the short timeframe to apply, though, an FCC eluded in a recent press release that this will likely be the final opportunity for both school districts and libraries to take advantage of the opportunity.  

“Given past demand, the third application filing window will likely be the last opportunity to request funding before the remaining Emergency Connectivity Funds are exhausted,” said the FCC in its recent statement.

According to the FCC, the Emergency Connectivity Fund has distributed over 10 million internet devices and 5 million broadband connections to more than 12.5 million students. Like the Clean School Bus Program and rebates for electric buses, the fund stems from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.

Demand for school bus WiFi

On this month’s episode of the School Transportation Nation podcast, the hosts discussed ECF funds, noting how demand for school bus WIFI is actually relatively low. In March, School Transportation News (STN) conducted a survey where 64 percent of respondents said that WiFi hotspots were no longer a top agenda item.

Here’s the reason why: during the height of the pandemic, there was an increase in school bus WiFi hotspot installations to complement virtual learning measures. For school transit officials, this meant that the bus became an extension of the classroom. Yet with COVID-19 simmering down, STN asked school districts about their reservations to implement WiFi on buses. At the end of the day, there’s less demand for online learning.

“What we’re seeing is people in administrations have made a decision, saying ‘we’re not doing the virtual learning in mass anymore, so we don’t need these hotspots,” said Ryan Gray, STN Editor-in-Chief, on the podcast.

Even prior to ECF funding and throughout the pandemic, many school districts had already equipped their buses with WiFi hotspots, securing financial support from elsewhere. Gray also noted that some communities are wary of accepting federal money. Not only is there less demand for online learning but also fear of extra responsibilities, like reporting obligations, by taking federal funds.

“School buses and student transportation have been so historically underfunded in terms of what the federal government does, yet when they bring money to the table, people are hesitant to take it because they wonder, what do I have to do for it?” added Gray.

Case study for bus WiFi

One case study for school bus WiFi is Hernando County School District in Florida which recently equipped 142 buses with internet access. For district officials, this is to help students who may not have WiFi at home.

“The intent of the WiFi project is to assist Hernando’s disadvantaged students, including both financially disadvantaged as well as those who live in areas where WiFi is not available,” said Karen Jordan, the public information officer for Hernando County School District.

While optimistic, the district wants to encourage students to use the WiFi for classwork while commuting on the school bus. This will include all of the same school-approved security measures, channels, and limited internet access. Overseeing this project worth just under $200,000 is Premier Wireless with funds coming from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) grant.