How CARES Act broadband expansion will help students

Research suggests what college leaders should ask of policymakers in expanding broadband access
By: | November 16, 2020
Tennessee has offered $20 million in grants to help public and private colleges and universities improve technology to ease the transition to online learning. (GettyImages/Carol Yepes)Tennessee has offered $20 million in grants to help public and private colleges and universities improve technology to ease the transition to online learning. (GettyImages/Carol Yepes)

Two states—Missouri and Tennessee—used CARES Act COVID relief funds to close broadband gaps in higher education, new research shows.

Missouri has allocated $10 million to upgrade college campus broadband networks, supply students with digital devices or hotspots, and enhance learning-management systems, according to The Pew Charitable Trusts ‘ broadband research initiative.

Tennessee has offered $20 million in grants to help public and private colleges and universities improve technology to ease the transition to online learning or add social distancing measures on campus.

Most states used relief funds for digital learning, public wifi access, telehealth services, and infrastructure for residential broadband service, the research concluded.


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In moves that may assist college students, many states spend CARES Act funds to create more public internet access points.

In one example, Idaho’s Commission for Libraries received $2 million to buy equipment so libraries in 50 small communities can provide 24/7 Wi-Fi access to the public. And Arizona gave its state library more than $650,000 for similar initiatives that include providing technical support to its citizens.

But Wi-Fi hotspots are short-term solutions for internet access issues. Higher ed leaders can encourage policymakers to consider the following Pew recommendations:

  • Prioritize connecting more homes to existing infrastructure: In many cases, the last pieces of the network—a line extension or customer equipment—are lacking, and the costs are often prohibitive for property owners. Public funding for this equipment can bring more residents online, particularly in rural and remote communities.
  • Invest in planning and oversight for long-term solutions: Broadband projects can take months or years to complete. Successful state grant programs require extensive planning and stakeholder engagement to be ready to launch when funding becomes available. For example, Vermont’s Emergency Broadband Action Plan identifies short- and long-term needs and positions projects to take advantage of funding opportunities.
  • Coordinate broadband deployment across levels of government: Current federal broadband funding sources have limited engagement with state-level initiatives. The Coronavirus Relief Fund offers more flexibility, allowing states to tailor resources to meet their needs and build on existing progress.

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