An Alabama program to provide free internet access for low-income students reached a milestone last week.
The Alabama Broadband Connectivity for Students (ABC for Students) program has now provided internet access to more than 100,000 of the state’s students, according to officials at the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA).
The program became a priority for the state when it was apparent a large number of the state’s students were going to pursue a virtual learning option this school year.
“For Governor Ivey, when we heard all of the school schedules that were going to be going to virtual, it was important to her to create initiatives that would help children that are on free and reduced lunches simply because it would qualify under the CARES Act because it would help them to be able to do their school work at home,” explained Kenneth Boswell, director of ADECA, in a recent conversation with Yellowhammer News.
In total, Ivey has committed up to $100 million from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act to deliver internet access to eligible students.
Boswell, whose department has been charged with administering ABC for Students, noted that some of the challenges with identifying areas of need had already been tackled by ADECA because of the ongoing broadband expansion effort.
“We were already a little ahead of the curve,” he said.
Based on the tight timeframe needed to get a program in place and administered, ADECA chose to implement a voucher program.
Then working with the Alabama State Department of Education, eligible students were sent a letter with a special code which they could use to obtain internet access through one of 37 different internet service providers.
In cases where families live at an address not serviced by any providers, ADECA will provide an internet hotspot.
More than 102,000 students have now enrolled in ABC for Students, which puts the effort in Alabama in a class of its own.
“We are the leading state with the highest success of implementation,” remarked Boswell.
Maureen Neighbors, chief of the Energy Division at ADECA, believes Alabama’s program is the largest in the nation given the number of students and providers in the mix.
“What we’re doing is more complex than what most other folks who are trying something similar are doing,” she said.
Neighbors cited programs where there is a single provider, or in a limited geographic area, as generally having a 2% success rate.
“We feel like we’re very far ahead of that,” she outlined. “This is one of the most ambitious attempts to address the digital divide based on affordability.”
With ample funding still available, Boswell urged families to give letters they receive a little more attention to make sure it is not an opportunity to get connected.
Boswell said his department has begun working with local superintendents to conduct outreach to students and parents who have yet to utilize their vouchers.
He encouraged families who think they may be eligible to call ADECA.
“Call us,” he said. “We want to help you. We want to make sure your child is getting the appropriate resources for them to learn at home.”
Though the funding expires on December 30, Boswell indicated that ADECA has the infrastructure in place to continue the program should Congress decide to extend it.
“In the short time frame that we have had to deal with, this has been wildly successful,” remarked Boswell. “It can be even more successful when more people participate.”
According to Neighbors, the first priority has always been to provide tools for educating children. However, she also noted that there has been a significant benefit to Alabama’s economy, as well.
“This has been an economic driver,” detailed Neighbors. “We work with 37 providers, and the vast majority of those are Alabama-based providers. We have national providers that are part of the process, and they have been great partners, as well. But the majority of the providers we’re dealing with are Alabama homegrown companies that are being supported through this program.”
And those providers have helped make ABC for Students more cost-efficient, according to Boswell.
“One of the big components of this is our vendors,” he said. “We had actually projected a higher cost. Because we had asked them to help not only the families but also the state of Alabama stretch the dollars, they came in at lower cost than what we had actually projected. So kudos to them. They came to the aid of the people that needed the help at a very reasonable cost.”
Anyone seeking more information on the program can call the ABC for Students dedicated help line at ADECA, which is 888.212.4998.
Tim Howe is an owner of Yellowhammer Multimedia