More than 15 million public school students lacked home internet access or a connected device during distance learning last year. To help bridge the digital divide, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has adopted final rules to implement the Emergency Connectivity Fund Program to allow school buses access to funding, according to a School Transportation News report.

Funded by the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, the FCC established the $7.17 billion program to provide funding for schools and libraries for connected devices and broadband technology. It also announced in May that school districts can use the funds normally allocated to building and library internet connectivity to also support the purchase of Wi-Fi hotspots for school buses and bookmobiles to provide off-campus broadband services to students.

School districts can apply for a maximum of $250 per Wi-Fi hotspot, as well as $400 per connected device. Other eligible uses of funds include remote learning programs, cybersecurity and private networks.

For other types of eligible equipment, including modems and routers, the FCC has said it doesn’t have a sufficient record to determine a reasonable maximum support amount. Instead, it has directed the Universal Service Administrative Company, which administers the FCC’s E-rate Program that federally funds internet connectivity in school buildings and libraries, to review each request and identify applications that are out of line with the funding requests of other applicants. Applicants are to be prepared to explain their selections and costs, as needed, to be eligible for 100% reimbursement, the FCC stated.

The first application window allows for funding requests to address purchases made between July 1, 2021, and June 30, 2022, which also aligns with the coming school year and the E-rate Program funding year.

If there are remaining funds after the first round of applications, the FCC will open a second window, during which schools and libraries can seek funding for eligible equipment and purchases already made between March 1, 2020, and June 30, 2021, to address the needs of staff and students during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Long term, school buses remain ineligible for the E-rate Program. But U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján, chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation’s Subcommittee on Communications, Media, and Broadband, and several other congressional members aim to change that. They introduced a bill in March to bridge the digital divide and homework gap. The bill calls on E-rate Program support for school bus Wi-Fi and would expand eligibility for the FCC program to reimburse schools that equip school buses with Wi-Fi technology. Currently, the E-rate Program only applies to libraries and schools.