Congress approves $7B for broadband in Covid relief package

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The legislation includes $1.9 billion to fund the FCC's "rip-and-replace" reimbursement program. (Getty Images)

Late Monday, Congress approved a coronavirus relief package that includes $7 billion for a flurry of broadband initiatives including broadband access for low-income households, funding the Huawei rip and replace reimbursement program, broadband coverage mapping, and more.

The Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act 2021 is included in a larger omnibus spending bill that will fund the U.S. government through September.

Both the Senate and the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly in favor of the package, which is expected to be signed into law Tuesday.

According to figures compiled from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), CCA, Axios and the House Energy & Congress newsroom, the $7 billion for broadband initiatives includes $3.2 billion for low-income broadband access granted through the FCC.

Outgoing FCC Chairman Ajit Pai in a statement said, “The $3.2 billion contained in this legislation leverage private efforts to ensure low-income American families and veterans are connected and will facilitate remote learning, funding connected devices for low-income American students.”

That amount is part of the Emergency Broadband Connections Act included in the package, providing a $50 per month emergency broadband benefit for anyone laid off or furloughed during the pandemic, according to a statement released Sunday by Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore).

The House’s end-of-year omnibus also provides a discount of up to $75 off internet service on Tribal lands and subsidies for low-cost devices like computers and tablets.

In addition to the $3.2 billion, other broadband allotments include:

  • $1.9 billion to fund the FCC’s “rip and replace” program to reimburse providers for the cost of removing existing network equipment deemed unsecure or a security risk, namely from suppliers Huawei and ZTE.
     
  • $1.3 billion for grants through the Department of Commerce’s NTIA, including $1 billion for tribal governments to use on broadband deployment, telehealth, distance learning and other digital initiatives; and $300 million to support broadband infrastructure deployments in unserved locations, especially rural areas.
     
  • $285 million partly used for a pilot program for broadband around historically Black colleges and universities and their surrounding communities.
     
  • $250 million for the FCC’s COVID-19 Telehealth program.
     
  • $65 million to implement the Broadband DATA Act, which tasks the FCC with creating more accurate broadband data maps.

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel pointed to how the Covid-19 pandemic highlighted the importance of broadband, calling legislation to boost connectivity during the crisis “terrific news.”

“This pandemic has demonstrated that access to broadband is no longer nice-to-have, it is need-to-have for everyone, everywhere,” Rosenworcel said in a statement. “This legislation is only a start, but it is important because it is the beginning of what needs to be a national effort to connect 100% of us to broadband,” she added.

Similarly, Commissioner Geoffrey Starks in prepared remarks said that the digital divide had morphed into the Covid-19 divide, with tens of millions struggling without broadband.

“Low-income Americans, Tribal communities, and communities of color have borne those burdens disproportionately. That’s why I am pleased that this legislation prioritizes connecting these households,” Starks stated, reiterating his focus on connecting not only the unserved but those who don’t have broadband because it’s not affordable.

“No family should have to decide between keeping the lights on or getting the household connected. I have long called on the FCC to focus on affordability, and I am committed to ensuring that this emergency broadband benefit quickly reaches the families that need it most,” Starks said.

In a statement WISPA applauded the legislation, noting that during the pandemic a significant majority of the group’s members have provided some sort of free connectivity or publicly available Wi-Fi to their communities on their own dime.

“The bipartisan bill will provide a hopeful lifeline to millions of Americans and businesses as we slowly emerge from the devastation to our lives and economy brought about by the pandemic,” WISPA stated, adding that it “will help WISPs stay up and running, and keep their customers they serve online.”

Steven Berry, CEO and president of industry trade group CCA, which counts many smaller and rural carriers as members commended the funding for essential broadband services and noted the significance of the rip-and-replace reimbursement.

“Dedicated funds for broadband mapping, the supply chain reimbursement, low-income broadband, tribal lands and other broadband programs are key to improving the lives of Americans across the country, especially those in rural areas,” Berry stated. “It certainly has been a challenging year for everyone, and I thank Congress for recognizing the importance of broadband, which is keeping us connected and businesses running during these trying times.”