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Democratic-led Congress gets serious about universal broadband funding


Illustration of the United States, with fiber-optic cables circling around the Earth.

Congress this week approved a $7.17 billion Emergency Connectivity Fund that schools and libraries will use to help people get Internet access at home. The fund is part of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan stimulus sent to President Joe Biden yesterday after being approved by the House and Senate. Biden signed the bill into law today.

The emergency fund should help students who live in areas where broadband is available but cannot afford it. This emergency measure may just be a prelude to a $94 billion broadband package that includes $80 billion to deploy high-speed broadband to parts of the US that do not have it.

Democrats introduced the $94 billion broadband initiative yesterday—it isn’t yet clear whether or when it will pass, but such initiatives have a much better chance now that Democrats control the White House and both chambers of Congress. More details on the larger broadband bill are included later in this article.

FCC to implement emergency fund

With the $7.17 billion emergency fund, the Federal Communications Commission will have to issue regulations within 60 days to carry out Congress’ instructions. Details on when and how the funding will be distributed are thus not yet available. FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said the fund will be an important tool for closing the “homework gap” that leaves many children without adequate Internet access.

“The nation’s homework gap has never been more evident than during this pandemic with the move to remote learning,” Rosenworcel said yesterday. “So, passage of the American Rescue Plan which would create the Emergency Connectivity Fund is welcome news. That’s because millions of students are locked out of the virtual classroom right now. They can’t do daily schoolwork. They’re the kids sitting outside of the fast food restaurant just trying to catch a Wi-Fi signal to go to class.”

Rosenworcel said recent estimates show that “as many as 17 million kids” are victims of the homework gap with up to a third of Black, Latino, Native American, and Alaska Native students “lack[ing] high-speed Internet access at home.”

“The new funding can be used to pay for eligible equipment and services for schools and libraries to provide to students who need them,” Rosenworcel said.

Fund will pay for service fees and devices

Under the text of the new law, schools that get funding would distribute it to students and staff to pay for broadband service and equipment at “locations that include locations other than the school.” Similarly, libraries would provide funding to patrons for broadband access at “locations that include locations other than the library.”

The funding could be used for Internet service fees and equipment including Wi-Fi hotspots, modems, routers, and “connected devices” such as laptops and tablets. The FCC will have to determine individual funding amounts, but the law allows for reimbursement of up to 100 percent of “reasonable” costs:

In providing support under the covered regulations, the Commission shall reimburse 100 percent of the costs associated with the eligible equipment, advanced telecommunications and information services, or eligible equipment and advanced telecommunications and information services, except that any reimbursement of a school or library for the costs associated with any eligible equipment may not exceed an amount that the Commission determines, with respect to the request by the school or library for the reimbursement, is reasonable.

The emergency fund would be available throughout the pandemic and for at least one year after the US declares the public health emergency to be over. It would use money from the US Treasury instead of the FCC’s Universal Service Fund, which uses fees paid by phone subscribers to support the E-rate program for schools and libraries.

$94 billion universal-broadband plan

Separately, House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), co-chair of the Senate Broadband Caucus, yesterday announced the $94 billion Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act, saying it will “build high-speed broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved communities to close the digital divide and ensure Americans have Internet connectivity to learn and work from home, access telehealth services, and stay connected to loved ones.”

The bill includes “$80 billion to deploy high-speed broadband infrastructure nationwide… $5 billion over five years for low-interest financing of broadband deployment through a new secured loan program… an additional $6 billion for the recently established Emergency Broadband Connectivity Fund… $1 billion to establish grant programs for states to close gaps in broadband adoption, as well as digital inclusion projects for organizations and local communities to implement… [and] $2 billion to enable students without Internet at home to participate in remote learning,” a press release from Klobuchar’s office said.

“Access to broadband today will have the same dramatic impact on rural communities as the rural electrification efforts in the last century,” Clyburn said in a press release. “When I formed the Rural Broadband Task Force, our mission was to address the digital divide. The disparate effects of that divide have been amplified during the COVID-19 pandemic and exposed the urgency of ensuring universal access to high-speed internet. I look forward to working with my colleagues in the House and Senate to enact the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act.”

Klobuchar said, “in 2021, we should be able to bring high-speed Internet to every family in America—regardless of their ZIP code. This legislation will help bridge the digital divide once and for all.”

Bill prioritizes high download and upload speeds

A bill summary on Clyburn’s website provides more detail on the $80 billion in broadband-infrastructure funding that would be distributed through a competitive bidding process and prioritize the building of networks with high download and upload speeds:

Seventy-five percent of the funding is to be used for a nationwide system of competitive bidding to fund broadband deployment in unserved areas, defined as areas with service below 25/25 Megabits per second (Mbps), and areas with low-tier service, defined as areas with service between 25/25 and 100/100Mbps. The remaining funds (25 percent) are to be distributed among States, by population with a minimum guarantee for each State, to conduct statewide systems of competitive bidding for broadband deployment in unserved areas, areas with low-tier service, and to unserved anchor institutions (anchor institutions with speeds less than 1 gigabit per 1,000 users). Both the Commission and State must first hold a system of competitive bidding exclusively for bidders offering gigabit symmetrical service…

The section also establishes certain requirements for projects funded under the program, including offering broadband service that provides at least 100/100Mbps with sufficiently low latency, offering broadband service at prices that are comparable to, or lower than, the prices charged for comparable service, and offering an affordable service plan. All bidders must meet objective, transparent criteria upfront that demonstrates technical and operational capacity to implement winning projects.

$50 monthly subsidies moving ahead

The “additional $6 billion for the recently established Emergency Broadband Connectivity Fund” would be added to a fund approved by Congress in December 2020 that will provide $50-per-month broadband subsidies to Americans who have low incomes or who lost their jobs during the pandemic. Congress initially provided $3.2 billion for that fund.

The FCC has begun the process of implementing the $50 monthly subsidies. There’s still no final word on when payments will go out or when people can sign up, but the FCC aims to get the enrollment process started by the last week of April or earlier.

The $94 billion bill is based on legislation introduced last year. That bill passed the House in July as part of a larger package but did not make it through the Senate, which was controlled by Republicans at the time.

Advocates for more affordable and widespread broadband are excited about the bill’s prospects in the Democratic-controlled Congress. “The [Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act] is expected to move in tandem with broader infrastructure proposals emanating from the House and the Biden administration,” Free Press said.

The bill also includes a provision that would eliminate state laws that prevent the growth of municipal broadband. Clyburn, Klobuchar, and Congressional staff “took a bill that was excellent when passed [by the House] last July and made it even better,” said Gigi Sohn, a longtime consumer advocate who was an FCC official during the Obama administration. “The result is a bill that will make great progress towards bringing Internet access to the tens of millions in the US who don’t currently have it. Congress should pass this bill without delay.”



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