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W.Va. receives funding for internet access for public school students

CHARLESTON — When it comes to broadband expansion in West Virginia, the millions sent to state and local governments through the American Rescue Plan or FCC rural broadband fund get all the headlines, but a new program will give students and their families better and affordable internet access.

Members of the Joint Committee on Government and Finance and the Joint Committee on Technology received updates Tuesday on the progress of broadband expansion efforts from Mitch Carmichael, secretary of the Department of Economic Development.

Speaking to joint technology committee members Tuesday afternoon, Carmichael said the state has pending federal grant applications for broadband programs, excluding the Federal Communication Commission’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund and the American Rescue Plan, totaling more than $100 million.

One of those programs is the FCC’s Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF). The $7.17 billion program will allow public schools and libraries to offer Wi-Fi hotspots for students to take home to access broadband. The program also covers reasonable costs for laptops and tablet computers, as well as modems and routers.

“ECF will help provide relief to millions of students, school staff and library patrons and will help close the Homework Gap for students who currently lack necessary Internet access or the devices they need to connect to classrooms,” the FCC states on their website.

Carmichael said that due to the efforts of Del. Daniel Linville, R-Cabell, and state Sen. Bob Plymale, D-Wayne, the state Department of Education applied for $47 million in ECF funds.

“I want to give credit to Del. Linville, Sen. Plymale and others that have really worked to get the FCC Emergency Connect Fund,” Carmichael said. “They incentivized the Department of Education to go after these funds, and they did so. … It’s a great program.”

Carmichael said competition for the ECF funds was not robust.

“We don’t have the awards yet. Those are pending,” Carmichael said. “It was reported to me earlier that of the $7 billion that allocated for this program nationally, there were only $5 billion of applications. Likely we’ll receive these funds.”

Last year, the state used federal C.A.R.E.S. Act funds to start WV Kids Connect, installing Wi-Fi hotspots at schools, colleges, libraries and state parks to give students a location to access the internet while many schools were on remote learning due to COVID-19 outbreaks.

Another program, called the Emergency Broadband Benefits program, provides $50 per month to subsidize broadband service for families with income at or below 135% of the federal poverty guidelines. The program also provides up to $100 for a desktop computer, laptop or tablet if recipients can contribute between $10 and $50 towards the purchase price.

“It helps with the affordability,” Carmichael said. “Currently, there 37,999 West Virginians utilizing that service. Virtually every internet service provider has signed up for the program and recognizes it. It’s a really big benefit.”

The Department of Economic Development is leading the state’s effort at broadband expansion and working to coordinate between internet service providers, and state, county and municipal governments.

More than $362.1 million was awarded to nine internet service providers in West Virginia for phase I of the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction. Phase I is focused on extending internet service to unserved parts of the state. West Virginia is set to receive $138 million for broadband expansion through President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan.

The state can also use part of the $1.355 billion it’s receiving through the American Rescue Plan for infrastructure projects, such as broadband expansion. Counties and cities are receiving a combined $679 million through the Biden plan that can also be used for broadband projects. Another $100 billion in broadband investment has come from various grants and loans through the Appalachian Regional Commission and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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