Broadband HEROES

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Friday, May 15, 2020

Weekly Digest

Broadband HEROES

 You’re reading the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society’s Weekly Digest, a recap of the biggest (or most overlooked) broadband stories of the week. The digest is delivered via e-mail each Friday.

Round-Up for the Week of May 11-15, 2020

Kevin Taglang

On May 12, House Democrats unveiled the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act. "We are presenting a plan to do what is necessary to address the corona crisis," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as she announced the legislation. Since more people are relying on home broadband service than ever before -- after all, broadband puts the "distance" in social distancing -- the HEROS Act includes many provisions to get a lot more people in the U.S. connected and safe. 

I. Emergency Benefit for Broadband Service

The legislation would create the Emergency Benefit for Broadband Service. During emergency periods related to COVID-19, households in which a member has been laid off or furloughed would be eligible to get a $50 benefit (or $75 on tribal lands) to put toward the monthly price of internet service. Internet service providers would be required to provide eligible households service at a price reduced by an amount up to the emergency benefit, and those providers can seek a reimbursement from the Federal Communications Commission for such amount.

The legislation would authorize nearly $9 billion to cover the costs of reimbursements.

The legislation would also enhance the FCC's Lifeline program which subsidizes phone and internet services for qualified low-income people. The HEROES Act would require that Lifeline providers make unlimited minutes and unlimited data available to those that rely on the Lifeline program to stay connected to phone or internet service and provides additional support. The bill also authorizes $200 million in funding to help states participate in the National Lifeline Eligibility Verifier.

The legislation prohibits broadband and telephone providers from terminating service due to a customer’s inability to pay their bill or imposing late fees incurred because of financial hardships caused by the COVID19 pandemic. It also prohibits broadband providers from employing data caps or charging customers from going over data caps, and requires them to open Wi-Fi hotspots to the public at no cost during the COVID-19 public health emergency.

II Expediting Buildout of Rural Broadband Networks

For at least 18 million people in the U.S., there is no broadband service available at any price. Many of these people live in rural areas. Back in February, the FCC created the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund to extend the reach of broadband networks deeper into rural America. The two-phase Rural Digital Opportunity Fund is set to launch later this year. Phase I will target census blocks that are wholly unserved with broadband at speeds of 25/3 Mbps. Broadband providers will participate in what's called a reverse auction in which the entity that bids for the lowest amount of subsidization will win the support to build a network in an unserved area. 

The HEROES Act would modify the FCC's Rural Digital Opportunity Fund framework for the auction as follows:

  • The FCC shall begin accepting long-form applications before the auction, (not later than the earlier of the date that is 30 days after the date on which the Commission begins accepting short-form applications or July 31, 2020), from such applicants as are willing to commit to the new schedule for deployment of networks capable of providing symmetrical Gigabit performance service.
  • If the long-form applications accepted indicate that, for any census block or census block group identified in the Preliminary List of Eligible Areas (released by the FCC on March 17, 2020), there is only 1 qualified applicant willing to commit to provide symmetrical Gigabit performance service, the Commission shall, no later than the earlier of September 30, 2020, or 30 days before the start of the auction
    • award to such applicant Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Phase I support for such census block or census block group, at 100 percent of the reserve price;
    • remove such census block or census block group from the auction; and
    • reduce the budget for the auction by 75 percent of the amount of the award and reduce the budget for the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Phase II auction by 25 percent of the amount of the award.
  • The FCC shall require an applicant submitting a long-form application to
    • not later than 30 days after the date on which such applicant submits such long-form application, provide a letter of commitment from a bank meeting the Commission’s eligibility requirements stating that the bank would provide a letter of credit to such applicant if such applicant becomes a winning bidder and is awarded support; and
    • commit to
      • begin construction not later than 6 months following funding authorization; and
      • begin to make service available not later than 1 year following funding authorization.

The HEROES Act also updates the Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability (DATA) Act, just signed into law in March 2020, and requires the FCC to create accurate broadband maps not later than October 1, 2020. The FCC would receive $25 million in fiscal year 2020 for the task and $9 million for each of the fiscal years 2021 through 2027.

III. Supporting Distance Education

The HEROES Act would authorize $5 billion in funding for a temporary disbursement to be administered through the Federal Communications Commission’s E-rate program for schools and libraries to provide internet service in a technologically neutral way to students and teachers, prioritizing those without internet access at home. The proposal allows authorized funding to be used for internet service and providing connected devices, such as laptops and tablets, Wi-Fi hotspots, modems, and routers, to students and teachers to help keep them in the digital classroom during the COVID-19 pandemic. Five percent of the emergency funds authorized are set aside to help schools and libraries that serve people living on tribal lands.

The legislation also includes $90 billion for a State Fiscal Stabilization Fund for grants to States to support statewide and local funding for elementary and secondary schools and public postsecondary institutions. This flexible funding can support (amount other things):

  • purchasing educational technology, including assistive technology, that aids in regular and substantive interactions between students and their classroom instructor;
  • training and professional development for college and university faculty and staff to use technology and services related to distance education;
  • emergency financial aid to postsecondary students for housing, food, technology, health care, and child care.

IV. Broadband for Healthcare

The HEROES Act would authorize $2 billion for a temporary expansion of the FCC’s Rural Health Care Program (RHCP) to partially subsidize health care providers’ broadband service. These authorized subsidies would flow to all nonprofit and public hospitals, not just rural ones. The bill also increases the broadband subsidy rate from 65 percent to 85 percent. The bill expands eligibility of the RHCP to ensure mobile and temporary health care delivery sites are eligible and temporarily modifies administrative processes to ensure funding is delivered expediently.

V. Helping the Federal Government Work from Home

Under the bill, the House of Representatives itself would receive support for an increase in inventory of satellite phones, Mobile Wi-Fi Hotspots, and updated satellite bandwidth technologies to meet escalating demand of District Offices during COVID-19. This problem for Members of Congress was highlighted during a May 13 Senate Commerce Committee hearing on The State of Broadband Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic when Sen Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), attending from her Tennessee home, said she doesn't have broadband, so her staff had to send her a mobile hotspot. New York Times reporter Cecilia Kang tweeted "And I don't know if it was her connection or mine, but the livestream just cut out."

The bill also would require agency leaders to allow telework for all eligible federal employees during the coronavirus pandemic. The provisions would require agencies to expand telework by creating incentives to increase its use and disincentives to reducing it. Agencies would also have to allow contractor personnel to telework during the
coronavirus health emergency if their work can be conducted remotely.

VI. Prison Phone Justice

More than 2 million people in the U.S. are in prison or jail. Prison and jails have unique telecommunications needs due to safety and security concerns. Unjust and unreasonable charges for telephone and advanced communications services in confinement facilities negatively impact the safety and security of communities in the United States by damaging relationships between incarcerated persons and their support systems, thereby exacerbating recidivism.

The COVID-19 pandemic has greatly intensified these concerns. Jails and prisons have become epicenters for the spread of the virus, with incarcerated persons concentrated in small, confined spaces and often without access to adequate health care. At Cook County (Illinois) jail alone, hundreds of incarcerated persons and jail staff have tested positive for the virus since its outbreak.

To prevent the spread of the virus, many jails and prisons across the country suspended public visitation, leaving confinement facility communications services as the only way that incarcerated persons can stay in touch with their families.

With these findings, the HEROES Act sets a mandatory, immediate, interim cap on all rates charged in connection with voice calls and video calls made to or from prisons or jails —both for calls within a state and calls between states — of .04 cents per minute for debit calls and .05 cents per minute for collect calls. It also gives the FCC the authority to set rates in connection with voice calls and video calls in prisons and jails both for calls within a state and calls between states. Finally, the bill requires the FCC to adopt rules to replace the mandatory interim caps within 18 months of passage and to review those rates every two years. The legislation prohibits prisons or jails from charging site commissions and preempts any state law that permits a higher rate for voice or video calling but allows state laws mandating a lower rate to persist.

VII. Spectrum for First Responders

The Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 gave the FCC nine years to reallocate the spectrum in the 470-512 MHz band used by public safety organizations and to auction that spectrum off. The HEROES Act would reverse this mandate and allow first responders to use this spectrum, known as the T-Band. 

Can HEROES Be Law?

As we go to press, the House of Representatives plans to vote on the HEROES Act later today and the measure is likely to pass. Prospects in the Senate are not as good. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has said there is no "urgency." The Senate will wait until after Memorial Day to consider COVID response options. Republicans are wary of another round of aid and Sen. McConnell declared the Democratic proposal a grab bag of "pet priorities." He said it is not something that "deals with reality."

The reality for voters, however, may be in the numbers: 85,000 deaths, nearly 1.5 million cases, and, of course, nearly 37 million people filing for unemployment insurance. 

Quick Bits

Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)

ICYMI from Benton

Upcoming Events

May 19 Teleconference Forum with FCC Chairman Pai (House Commerce Committee)

May 20 Developing Broadband Leadership Webinar Series Part 2: The Community Broadband Development Process (University of Illinois Extension, Ilinois Office of Broadband, Benton Institute for Broadband & Society)

May 20 How Broadband Maps Are Being Used to Help Identify Unserved and Underserved Communities (Broadband Breakfast)

May 20 Using Smart Technologies to Drive Regional Transformation (NTIA)

May 21 Mandatory Data Portability and Interoperability: What are the Costs and Benefits? (Technology Policy Institute)

May 27 Workers and COVID-19 (NetGain Partnership)

May 27 Getting to the Source of the 2020 Infodemic: It’s the Business Model (New America)

May 28 Local Community Broadband: A Good Answer to Internet Connectivity (Merit Network)

May 29 Broadband on the Hill: A Legislative Update (Schools Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition)

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.

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Kevin Taglang

Kevin Taglang
Executive Editor, Communications-related Headlines
Benton Institute
for Broadband & Society
727 Chicago Avenue
Evanston, IL 60202
headlines AT benton DOT org

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