COVID-19 Has School Districts Battling For WiFi Hotspots

By Kelcee Griffis
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Law360 (March 27, 2020, 6:39 PM EDT) -- While hospitals wrestle with life-threatening equipment shortages of ventilators and protective gear, some nonprofits are grappling with a less dire but nevertheless worrisome consequence of the coronavirus pandemic: a short supply of WiFi hotspots.

Groups that procure student-friendly hotspots and laptops with built-in internet access say that, as school districts move all classes online, a spike in demand has created a shortage of thousands — if not millions — of devices.

"Where those devices are going to come from is really going to be tricky because they have flown off the shelf like Purell," said Pat Millen, who founded Eliminate the Digital Divide, a nonprofit that supplies connectivity equipment to K-12 schools in Charlotte, North Carolina. "The supply chain is completely broken."

LTE-connected laptops and hotspots are two of the most popular ways that school districts can put a plug-and-play internet connection into students' hands, allowing them to complete homework and keep up with lessons without a hardwired, in-home connection.

Experts estimate that roughly 12 million school-aged children lack reliable internet access and need a mobile connection to complete coursework. According to Angela Siefer, executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, 18 million households lack any kind of broadband connection, including mobile internet. The COVID-19 pandemic has only thrown this gap into sharp relief, she said.

"The U.S. has a serious broadband access problem right now, and all the solutions are Band-Aids that barely cover it," she said. "Remember that this is a global situation, so everyone across the globe started ordering hotspots. Of course the supply is not ready for the demand."

One of the biggest barriers to obtaining the sought-after routers is that most of the equipment is made in China.

Daniel Neal, founder of school technology vendor Kajeet, explained that U.S. companies tend to keep low inventories of the equipment on hand. The mass migration to home networks triggered by the onset of the coronavirus "is one of those unprecedented instances" in which a spike in demand wiped out supplies on hand, he said.

Although Kajeet has already placed more orders for laptops and hotspots, "it's not coming as quickly as our school district customers would like," Neal said.

As districts and their suppliers run into roadblocks with placing orders directly from factories or going through intermediaries, many are turning to the so-called spot market. School districts and their partners are now scrambling to find pockets of stockpiled resources that districts can purchase for online learning.

"Just like N95 masks and ventilators, there are small, small — I emphasize small — stockpiles of MiFi devices and Chromebooks around the U.S. We have been very actively hunting those down," Neal said. MiFi devices are portable routers that allow users to establish wireless internet connections.

While Kajeet is trying to place the largest-possible orders to kick manufacturing into high gear, Neal said single companies can only goad suppliers so much. The "most radical but easily done" method to speed up assembly lines would be for a government procurement giant like the General Services Administration to order millions of devices directly from equipment manufacturers and make that stockpile available to schools, according to him.

On the funding side, Congress could step in with legislation that more directly underwrites educational connectivity. In late February, Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., introduced a bill that would funnel proceeds from FCC spectrum auctions into a fund that localities could use to buy LTE devices.

The coronavirus rescue package, which the House passed and President Donald Trump signed on Friday, contains some funding to support distance learning as well as broadband hardware and software, but it's yet unclear whether or how school districts can tap into the money.

The Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition, a consortium that represents educational institutions, said it plans to formally request that Congress appropriate funds for hotspot manufacturing. According to John Windhausen Jr., the coalition's executive director, the need is urgent as it takes about 12 weeks to get new hotspots made and shipped to the U.S.

While hotspots and LTE-connected laptops are one of the most practical, immediate solutions for getting students online, Siefer warned that they're not foolproof. LTE connections are susceptible to the same service dead zones as cell phones, so many students may live in areas where a hotspot or laptop's signal is spotty.

To offset reliance on these devices, the group suggested the FCC could ramp up low-income phone benefits through the Lifeline program and support local organizations that help residents find more specific connectivity solutions. The agency could also lift restrictions on the E-Rate program to allow schools and libraries to purchase at-home devices with federal funds.

In the meantime, in the Charlotte region, schools are making do with whatever they can get their hands on. In addition to 6,000 hotspots donated by Sprint plus 140,000 Chromebooks the district sent home with students, Millen estimates the district still needs between 6,000 and 10,000 more LTE devices.

Despite these outstanding connectivity needs and no immediate answers for how they'll be filled, Millen said he's trying to focus on how the pandemic has emphasized the internet's indispensability.

"There's this potential crazy silver lining in all of this: This crisis has really put a spotlight on how access can really no longer be treated as 'a good idea,'" he said.

--Editing by Adam LoBelia.

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