Wireless industry trade groups CTIA and CCA are giving praise to broadband-focused legislative efforts, including a $7.6 billion Emergency Connectivity Fund.
The provision, passed by the House Energy & Commerce Committee Friday (February 12) as part of its recommendations for COVID-19 relief budget reconciliation, targets the digital divide and homework gap exacerbated by the Covid pandemic. The fund would enable eligible schools and libraries to offer connected devices, internet service, and hotspots, among other things, to students and teachers to connect to the internet at home.
The Subcommittee on Communications and Technology is holding a virtual hearing on the subject tomorrow titled “Connecting America: Broadband Solutions to Pandemic Problems.”
Following committee passage, E&C Chairman Frank Pallone Jr. (D-NJ) issued a statement on advancing proposals, which also focus on funds for vaccine distribution, access to mental health care and substance treatment, and assistance for energy and water utility bills, among others.
“I’m pleased the Energy and Commerce Committee passed bold legislation today that combats the COVID-19 pandemic, provides relief to struggling families, and helps rebuild our economy,” Rep. Pallone stated.
“We also expand internet connectivity to help bridge the digital divide for students and teachers who do not have access to the internet at home,” Pallone continued.
CEO and President of the Competitive Carriers Association (CCA) Steven Berry applauded the work and pointed to the critical need for wireless connectivity.
“There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of wireless services, particularly for those in rural and hard-to-serve areas,” stated Berry.
CCA counts smaller and regional providers among its roughly 100 carrier members, which collectively serve more than 130 million subscribers and many in rural and hard-to-reach communities.
“The Committee got it right – the most important and fundamental issue is connectivity,” Berry's statement continued. “Wireless services and hotspots are the quickest, most efficient, and most effective way to connect children immediately for remote learning, and CCA looks forward to continued work with the Committee to ensure policies help close the digital divide as quickly as possible.”
CTIA also praised Pallone and the House Energy & Commerce Committee, pointing to the immediate need to help kids partake in online remote learning.
“Wireless providers have partnered with schools across the country to connect millions of kids to their peers and teachers through mobile hotspots, and this legislation builds on that work,” said Kelly Cole, SVP of Government Affairs for CTIA, in a statement. “We look forward to working with Congress and the FCC to harness mobile wireless services to close the homework gap for good.”
FCC and emergency broadband benefit
The FCC, meanwhile, last Friday held a roundtable to discuss how to quickly implement the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program. That program was established late last year, with Congress allocating $3.2 billion including discounts on internet service for those facing financial strain in the face of the ongoing pandemic.
It includes up to $50 per month for eligible consumers and up to $75 per month for those on Tribal Lands. Some eligible participants can also get discounts on a computer or laptop.
In opening remarks (PDF) Acting FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, citing Pew Research Center data, said one-third of broadband users are worried they won’t be able to afford service during the pandemic.
“We need a program that responds to these concerns and is open to every eligible household. With so much of modern life now dependent on internet access, no one should have to choose between paying a broadband bill and paying rent or putting food on the table,” Rosenworcel said.
The Emergency Broadband Benefit can help she said, but “this agency now needs to make the hard choices to provide relief fast.”
According to opening remarks (PDF) by Commissioner Geoffrey Starks, one of biggest issues facing the program is getting consumers informed that the program exists. He said that requires broad outreach efforts and a straightforward and simple signup process. The second hurdle Starks cited is getting the most providers, large and small, to participate so that all eligible communicates can be reached.
“My conversations with broadband providers over the last year gives me confidence we can meet that goal,” Starks stated.
Starks has been an advocate for closing the digital divide not only in areas where high-speed internet isn’t available, but also communities where service is offered but consumers can’t afford it.
He also noted that in “2021 Black Americans and other people of color are still, by a wide margin, significantly less likely to have a home broadband connection than their counterparts.”
In a January letter to the FCC, 98 Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs) urged the agency to focus on a straightforward application and reimbursement process, as well as quick repayment for providers. The WISPs said that as small businesses it could be difficult to wait several months while extending $50 discounts to a large number of subscribers. They also asked that telecommunications providers not be favored above other providers.