With Broadband on the Senate's Plate, Will the U.S. Get Served?

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Friday, July 17, 2020

Weekly Digest

With Broadband on the Senate's Plate, Will the U.S. Get Served?

 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 July 13-17, 2020

Kevin Taglang

The U.S. Senate returns to work next week in the last legislative session before Congress breaks for the summer.  Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) indicated that debate will begin on a fifth coronavirus-response bill -- will extending broadband's reach and connecting more Americans be part of the mix?

Back in May, the House of Representatives passed the HEROES Act which recognized that more people are relying on home broadband service than ever before. The bill includes many provisions to get a lot more people in the U.S. connected and safe. Back in May, Sen. McConnell said there was no urgency to consider the HEROES Act because it is not something that "deals with reality."

The reality today is reflected in stark numbers: over 3.5 million confirmed COVID-19 cases in the U.S, 138,000 deaths, and 32 million Americans claiming jobless benefits. COVID-19 cases are on the rise in 41 states. Many colleges and school districts have decided it will not be safe to open for in-person instruction this fall electing to hold instruction online, and some businesses are asking workers to continue to telecommute at least through 2020 if not forever

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY)
Mitch McConnell (R-KY)

Moreover, Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said he thinks "the fall and the winter of 2020 and 2021 are going to be probably one of the most difficult times that we experienced in American public health." Earlier in the pandemic, public-health experts warned that a second, deadlier wave of transmission could arrive during colder months. In the U.S., those predictions assumed infections would trail off in the summer. That's far from the case now. 

The House Approach

As noted above, back in May, the House passed the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act (H.R. 6800). That bill contains a host of broadband-related provisions to get and keep more Americans connected. The bill's broadband provisions 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 ($75 on tribal lands) to put toward the monthly price of broadband service. Broadband internet service providers would be required to provide service to eligible households at a price reduced by an amount up to the emergency benefit.
  • Prohibit broadband and telephone providers from terminating service or imposing late fees due to a customer’s inability to pay their bill because of financial hardships caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Prohibit broadband providers from employing data caps or charging customers for going over data caps. 
  • Require broadband providers to open Wi-Fi hotspots to the public at no cost during the COVID-19 public health emergency.
  • Accelerate the FCC's Rural Digital Opportunity Fund for broadband providers who commit to a quicker deployment schedule for Gigabit networks.
  • Provide $5 billion to connect students and teachers to online classrooms and purchase devices such as laptops and tablets, Wi-Fi hotspots, modems, and routers. 
  • Create a $90 billion fund for states to support education technology and training and professional development for college and university faculty and staff to use technology and services related to distance education.
  • Expand the FCC's Rural Health Care Program, making all nonprofit and public hospitals (not just rural) eligible for support.

On June 29, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) led 28 Democrats in introducing a standalone bill covering these provisions. The Emergency Broadband Connections Act (S.4095) would provide a $50/month benefit to workers who have been laid off or furloughed during the pandemic, along with a range of other assistance to ensure families can access critical online services. A companion standalone bill, H.R.6881, has been introduced in the House by Rep. Marc Veasey (D-TX).

The Emergency Broadband Connections Act has support from Access Now; American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU); Asians Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC; Breakthrough Central Texas; Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT); Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP); Center for Rural Strategies; Citizens for Educational Excellence; Chemeketa Community College; Child Welfare League of America (CWLA); Coastal Compass Education and Career Resource Center; Common Cause; Communications Workers of America (CWA); Consumer Reports; ED2WORK; EDUCAUSE; Education to Employment Partners; Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF); Engine; Free Press Action; Gigi Sohn, Distinguished Fellow at the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law and Policy, Benton Institute for Broadband & Society Senior Fellow and Public Advocate; Greater Spokane Inc. (GSI); Higher Learning Advocates; Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice; Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP); Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights; LeadMN - College Students Connecting for Change; NAACP; Nashville State Community College Foundation; National Association of College and University Business Officers; National Center for Learning Disabilities; National Consumer Law Center (NCLC); National Hispanic Media Coalition (NHMC); New America; Northwestern Health Sciences University; Open Technology Institute (OTI); Oregon Alliance of Independent Colleges & Universities; Public Knowledge; Rebuilding America’s Middle Class (RAMC); Reed College; Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition (RVCC); Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC); State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO); The Graduate! Network; United Church of Christ, OC Inc.; and Young Invincibles.

In addition to the HEROES Act, on July 1, the House passed the Moving Forward Act (H.R. 2), a $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan. On broadband, H.R. 2 would:

  • Invest $100 billion to promote competition for broadband internet infrastructure to unserved and underserved rural, suburban, and urban communities, prioritizing communities in persistent poverty and ensuring that broadband-related support is being administered in an efficient, technology-neutral, and financially sustainable manner.
  • Require states to create a process for broadband deployment.
  • Create the State Digital Equity Capacity Grant Program with $685 million for grants aimed at promoting digital equity through financial support and capacity building through state-led “digital equity plans.”
  • Establish the Digital Equity Competitive Grant Program with $625 million in grants to support digital equity efforts, promote access, and spur greater adoption of broadband services. These funds would be eligible for any state agency or non-profit entity that manages labor and workforce training programs.
  • Create a “Dig Once” task force that would be required to consult with counties in developing a report for Congress that would analyze the estimated annual cost for a national dig once requirement and options for funding such a requirement.
  • Prohibit state barriers and restrictions on municipal-owned broadband networks that are currently in place in 22 states where localities are either impeded or prohibited entirely from owning or operating broadband networks.
  • Establish the Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth within the National Telecommunication and Information Administration. This office would be tasked with creating and sharing best practices from across the federal government to promote digital access for all communities. Additionally, this office would be charged with developing streamlined application processes for stakeholders to obtain federal broadband funding.
  • Authorize $5 billion for the E–Rate program and expand eligibility. Funds would support purchases of Wi-Fi hotspots, other equipment, and connected devices; and require the FCC update its rules permitting Wi-Fi access on school buses as eligible for funding under the E-Rate program.
  • Provide a total of $100 billion in competitive, need-based grants for states to award to Local Education Agencies (LEAs) to be appropriated between FY 2020 and FY 2024. In FY 2020, states would be required to prioritize subgrants to fund projects necessary to reopen schools in line with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for COVID-19. States could also distribute up to 10 percent of their grant allocation to LEAs with existing programs or public-private partnerships focused on expanding access to high-speed broadband to support digital learning.
  • Provide $30 billion in new bond authority for improvements to high-poverty schools. States could distribute up to 10 percent of their total bond limitation to enable LEAs to support existing programs or public-private partnerships focused on expanding access to high-speed broadband to support digital learning.
  • Authorize $24 million for the FCC to implement stronger data reporting measures required under the Broadband DATA Act. That law requires the FCC to make substantive changes to the way broadband data is collected, disputed, and reported.
  • Require the FCC to redefine unserved and underserved communities.

Of note, these broadband provisions in the Moving Forward Act were also introduced in both the House and the Senate as standalone bills -- in the House by the bill's architect, Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-SC) and members of the House Rural Broadband Task Force, and in the Senate by former Presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), who is also co-chair of the Senate Broadband Caucus. In the Senate, the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act (S.4131) is also supported by Senators Brian Schatz (D-HI), Mark Warner (D-VA), Ed Markey (D-MA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), and Jacky Rosen (D-NV).

A Senate Approach?

Sen. McConnell is expected to roll out a $1 trillion COVID-response bill as early as next week. There's no indication yet about whether broadband will be part of the package. In addition to the House-passed legislation, senators have introduced some two dozen bills to address the digital divide over the past few months. 

In June, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), who chairs the Senate committee with primary jurisdiction over broadband deployment issues, introduced the Accelerating Broadband Connectivity (ABC) Act of 2020 (S.4021). The bill -- co-sponsored by Sens Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), Jerry Moran (R-KS), and Roy Blunt (R-MO) -- would create a fund to be used by the FCC to incentivize Rural Digital Opportunity Fund participants to complete their network buildout obligations on an accelerated timeline. The ABC Act has support from potential fund recipients, including USTelecom, NTCA - The Rural Broadband Association, and the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association. 

Although the ABC Act is proposed by a key chairman, its partisan support is limited. Back in March, Sen. Amy Klobuchar introduced the Keeping Critical Connections Act of 2020 (S.3569) which is now co-sponsored by more than a third of the Senate. The bill would appropriate $2 billion for a Keeping Critical Connections fund at the FCC under which small broadband providers with fewer than 250,000 customers could be compensated for broadband services—if they provided free or discounted broadband services or upgrades during the pandemic for low-income families who could not afford to pay their bills or provided distance learning capability for students. The bill is endorsed by NTCA—the Rural Broadband Association, WTA – Advocates for Rural Broadband, Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA), the Minnesota Telecommunications Alliance, and the Broadband Association of North Dakota (BAND).

Sen John Thune (R-SD), the former chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, introduced Rural Connectivity Advancement Program Act of 2020 (S.4015) on June 18. The bill would capture a portion of the proceeds from spectrum auctions conducted by the FCC through September 30, 2022, for the buildout of broadband networks. The FCC would be able to utilize the funds to support broadband deployment in rural America. Specifically, S.4015 would:

  • Set-aside 10 percent of the net proceeds from spectrum auctions for the buildout of broadband networks;
  • Require the FCC to utilize the funds to address gaps that remain in broadband internet access service coverage in high-cost rural areas;
  • Allow the FCC to use the funds in a technology-neutral manner to address shortfalls in funding of existing USF High-Cost Programs for the buildout of broadband services;
  • Require the FCC to consider the broadband internet access service needs of residents of tribal lands; and
  • Require the FCC to produce an annual report on the distribution of funds.

Also on the radar is Sen. Michael Bennet's Broadband Reform and Investment to Drive Growth in the Economy (BRIDGE) Act of 2020 (S. 4113). Although the bill has no co-sponsors yet, it would:

  • Provide $30 billion to states and $1 billion to tribal governments to connect unserved communities, hospitals, schools, and libraries to affordable, high-speed broadband that will meet their long-term needs.
  • Encourage gigabit-level internet wherever possible while raising the minimum speeds for new broadband networks to at least 100/100 Mbps.
  • Emphasize affordability by requiring new broadband networks to provide at least one low-cost option for low-income families.
  • Increase choice and competition by lifting bans against municipal broadband networks and allowing more entities to compete for funding.
  • Overhaul broadband data by providing funding for the FCC to reform its data collection while setting a one-year deadline.

We Got Some Bills, Can We Get A Law?

On the G&T: Tech on the Rocks podcast hosted by Benton Senior Fellow and Public Advocate Gigi Sohn, telecommunications policy advocate David Goodfriend predicted that to pass the Senate, any broadband provisions will have to be technologically neutral, temporary, and not "undermine markets" (which he clarified to mean 'no reliance on municipal broadband networks'). 

On the first point, Benton Faculty Research Fellow and University of Virginia  Associate Professor Christopher Ali cautions that technological neutrality can result in technological blindness. Whenever we invest public dollars into broadband, consumers should get the broadband performance they need today and networks that can easily upgrade to keep up with increasing bandwidth demands. 

The Emergency Benefit for Broadband Service passed by the House and supported by Senate Democrats is certainly envisioned to be temporary. Benton Senior Fellow Jonathan Sallet proposed an emergency benefit in April but also noted that we need to think long term. Millions have lost jobs over the last few months and those jobs may not come back soon. For low-income families to stay connected, we have to consider long-term, low-cost service solutions that deliver the bandwidth needed for job training, employment searches, online schooling, and other crucial applications. 

Finally, we should never undermine competitive markets, of course, but neither should we settle for unserved areas, monopolies, or duopolies. As Sallet recently wrote, at a typical broadband speed of 100/10 Mbps, at least 80% of Americans face either a monopoly (no choice) or a duopoly (only one choice) for fixed broadband service. It’s worse in rural America, where monopoly is even more prevalent. The impact is obvious: higher prices, lower quality, and/or slowed innovation limiting the ability of people to participate fully in society and the economy. There are many things we can do to facilitate competition and make broadband markets healthier -- restricting municipalities and counties from experimenting with various ways of increasing broadband deployment is not one of them.

We are a long way from navigating ourselves out of the COVID-19 health and economic crises. Let's hope the Senate can act to help keep us all connected during the tough times ahead. 

Quick Bits

Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)

ICYMI from Benton

Upcoming Events

July 21 -- PrivacyCon (FTC)

July 22 -- Senate Commerce Committee Markup 

July 29 -- Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee Meeting (FCC)

July 30 -- Commerce Spectrum Management Advisory Committee Meeting (NTIA)

Aug 3 -- The role of US libraries as community hubs to drive digital adoption and literacy (FCC)

Aug 6 -- FCC August 2020 Open Commission Meeting 

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.

© Benton Institute for Broadband & Society 2020. Redistribution of this email publication - both internally and externally - is encouraged if it includes this copyright statement.

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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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Broadband Delivers Opportunities and Strengthens Communities

By Kevin Taglang.