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Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The coronavirus pandemic has caused shortages of life-saving equipment like masks and ventilators — and now, we could be running low on WiFi hotspots, devices that use cellular signals to create local networks.

Why it matters: Demand is outpacing supply of the normally niche product, now a hot commodity for schools and libraries looking to bring online learning to students who lack internet access at home.

Where it stands: There are probably fewer than half a million hotspots available from the major carriers in the U.S., and the Asia-based supply chains that could replenish that stock continue to face coronavirus-linked disruptions, said Evan Marwell, CEO of Education Superhighway, a nonprofit that works with schools to increase broadband access.

  • That pales in comparison to the millions of students without broadband that school districts are looking to assist nationwide. (According to FCC estimates, 21 million Americans lack high-speed internet access, though that number could be higher due to problems with data collection.)
  • AT&T and Verizon confirmed that hotspots are in high demand, in some cases exceeding supply or leading to delivery delays.
  • "For this school year, there is basically no chance we can get all these kids online using hotspots," Marwell said.

Of note: Even some small orders of hotspots that predate the crisis are going unfilled.

  • The Kansas City Public Library, which planned to loan out the devices to patrons, ordered 100 at the beginning of the year. So far, 25 have arrived, and deputy director Carrie Coogan said she doesn't know when the rest will come.
  • Donors have offered to pay for more hotspots, Coogan said, but it's a question of supply, not money. "It's frustrating because not only do we not know if we’ll get the number we ordered, but we have the opportunity to get more and we can’t get those either," she said.

The best short-term solution might be to rely on secondhand or refurbished smartphones that could be used as hotspot devices, said wireless industry consultant Chetan Sharma. (Many smartphones today can act as hotspots too, which is one reason inventory of the standalone devices was limited to begin with.)

  • The 1Million Project Foundation, which provides connectivity devices to high schools, has begun offering smartphones as an alternative.

Yes, but: Even low-end smartphones like the $75 models the 1Million Project provides are more expensive than hotspots, which can run as little as $45, said project president Doug Michelman.

  • "If all they're trying to do is solve connectivity, a hotspot is the most economically efficient option," he said.
  • Hotspots also have longer battery life and provide a stronger WiFi signal than smartphones, said John Windhausen, executive director of the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition.

Meanwhile: The issue comes as lawmakers debate spending federal funds on hotspots for students in need as part of broader coronavirus stimulus efforts.

  • House Democrats sought $2 billion for schools to pay for WiFi hotspots and connected devices including laptops or tablets, though that didn't make it into the $2 trillion package President Trump signed Friday.
  • Education Superhighway's Marwell said he'd prefer technologically neutral funding that could be used for home broadband connections, hotspot devices or even more creative solutions like equipping school buses with WiFi and parking them in neighborhoods with students in need.
  • “Hotspot-capable devices are widely available, and Congress should be focused on providing funding to support any device that can deliver the connectivity kids need right now," said Nick Ludlum, spokesman for wireless trade group CTIA.

Go deeper

42 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Bipartisan group of senators seeks coronavirus stimulus deal

Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine). Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

At least eight Republican and Democratic senators have formed a working group aimed at securing new coronavirus spending during the lame-duck session, a move favored by President-elect Biden, two sources familiar with the group tell Axios.

Why it matters: It may be the most significant bipartisan step toward COVID relief in months.

FCC chairman to depart in January

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Ajit Pai will leave his post as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission on Jan. 20, the agency said today.

Why it matters: Pai's Inauguration Day departure is in keeping with agency tradition, and could set up the Biden administration with a 2-1 Democratic majority at the FCC if the Senate fails to confirm another Trump nominee during the lame-duck period.

Ben Geman, author of Generate
2 hours ago - Economy & Business

GM's shrinking deal with Nikola

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

General Motors will no longer take an equity stake in Nikola Corp. or build its pickup truck, under a revised deal that still envisions GM as a key tech supplier for Nikola's planned line of electric and fuel cell heavy trucks.

Driving the news: The revised agreement Monday is smaller in scope than a draft partnership rolled out in September that had included a $2 billion stake in the startup and an agreement to build its Badger pickup.