Did The Debt Ceiling Deal Clip Broadband Funding?

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Friday, June 9, 2023

Weekly Digest

Did the Debt Ceiling Deal Clip Broadband Funding?

 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 June 5-9, 2023

Kevin Taglang

On June 3, President Joe Biden signed the Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023, which suspends the debt ceiling through January 1, 2025—and increases the limit on January 2, 2025—while establishing new discretionary spending limits and rescinding certain unobligated funds. In the unceremonious words of the president in another setting, "This is a big [freakin'] deal." And, in Speaker Kevin McCarthy's words, "the biggest spending cut in American history.” But since Congress has allocated many billions for universal broadband over the past few years, will the debt ceiling deal claw back any of that money?

Recovering Unspent COVID Relief

“Tens of billions of dollars in unspent COVID funds will be clawed back for taxpayers because of this bill’s spending rescissions, the largest in American history."—Speaker McCarthy

The new law rescinds an estimated $30 billion in unspent coronavirus relief money that Congress approved through previous bills—mainly the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. But not all funding for programs established or enhanced by those laws is impacted. The law claws back unobligated money from dozens of federal programs that received aid during the pandemic, including rental assistance, small business loans, and, yes, broadband for Tribal lands, and rural and other unserved areas.

Broadband-Specific Programs

The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 established three broadband grant programs at the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA):

  • The $1 billion Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program (which received an additional $2 billion through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act), directed to tribal governments to be used for broadband deployment on tribal lands, as well as for telehealth, distance learning, broadband affordability, and digital inclusion. 
  • The $288 million Broadband Infrastructure Program, directed to partnerships between a state, or one or more political subdivisions of a state, and providers of fixed broadband service to support broadband infrastructure deployment to areas lacking broadband, especially rural areas. 
  • The $268 million Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program, directed to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs), and Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs) for the purchase of broadband internet access service and eligible equipment or to hire and train information technology personnel.

Each of these programs is targeted in the Fiscal Responsibility Act, but there are few, if any, Consolidated Appropriations Act funds to claw back.

Congress appropriated funds for the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program and the Broadband Infrastructure Program (BIP) "to remain available until expended." NTIA has worked to make a number of grants through both programs. As of May 24, 2023, NTIA has awarded $1.77 billion in Tribal Broadband Connectivity to 166 Tribal entities. (So, presumably, the Consolidated Appropriations Act funding has been expended.) NTIA also made 14 BIP awards totaling $282,785,260.40. That leaves just over $5.2 million left in the BIP program.

NTIA has awarded all the Connecting Minority Communities funding through 93 grants to 43 Historically Black Colleges and Universities, 24 Hispanic Serving Institutions, 21 Minority Serving Institutions, and five Tribal Colleges and Universities.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Distance Learning, Telemedicine, & Broadband Program helps rural communities use advanced telecommunications technology, funding broadband facilities used for distance learning or telemedicine, computer hardware, network components, software, instructional programming, and limited technical assistance and instruction on how to use distance learning and telemedicine equipment. In the CARES Act, Congress allocated $25 million for the program "to remain available until expended" for telemedicine and distance learning services in rural areas. The debt ceiling deal, however, rescinds any funds the USDA hasn't already obligated to communities. In fiscal year 2021, the USDA awarded Distance Learning and Telemedicine Grants totaling over $52.3 million, so, again, the CARES Act allocation may have already been spent.

Broadband-Related Programs

Some COVID-relief funds allowed for spending on broadband connectivity as one of many possible uses. Here's a look at some of those programs that now are facing clawback of unobligated balances.

  1. The Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) at the Department of Education provided funding to state educational agencies, which in turn made subgrants (at least 90% of the state award) to local educational agencies to address the impact of COVID-19 on students and school personnel. Support could be used to purchase hardware, software, and connectivity for students. Originally set to expire on September 30, 2022, Congress extended the program to September 30, 2024 through the American Rescue Plan Act. 
  2. The Department of Education's Emergency Assistance for Non-Public Schools program provided emergency services or assistance in the wake of the COVID pandemic to non-public schools that enroll a significant percentage of low-income students. Funding could be used on educational technology (including hardware, software, connectivity, assistive technology, and adaptive equipment) to assist students, educators, and other staff with remote or hybrid learning. Established by Congress in the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2021 and extended by the American Rescue Plan Act, the program was to run through September 30, 2023. 
  3. The Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund III (HEERF III), authorized by the American Rescue Plan Act,  provided $39.6 billion in support to institutions of higher education to serve students and ensure learning continued during the COVID-19 pandemic. Originally, funds would have remained available through September 30, 2023, but Congress has now rescinded them. HEERF III allowed funds to be used on educational technology (including hardware, software, connectivity, assistive technology, and adaptive equipment) to assist students, educators, and other staff with remote or hybrid learning.
  4. The American Rescue Plan Act allocated $200 million to the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) for "necessary expenses to carry out museum and library services." Nearly 90 percent of this funding was awarded directly to state library administrative agencies. Of the remaining funds, IMLS offered $15 million in grants to museums, libraries, and Native American and Native Hawaiian communities. Projects could continue, enhance, or expand existing programs and services, or launch new ones to address emergent needs and unexpected hardships. The one-year matching grants provided $10,000 to $50,000.  IMLS received 572 applications requesting over $22.8 million. In October 2021, IMLS announced 390 grants totaling $15,255,733 to institutions across 49 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. 
  5. The CARES Act set aside $300 million for Native American Programs at the Department of Housing and Urban Development "to prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus, for activities and assistance authorized under Title I of the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act of 1996. Funds were to remain available until September 30, 2024. Broadband access is an allowable expense in a number of these programs.

Overall, the Congressional Budget Office projected the Fiscal Responsibility Act will reduce budget deficits by about $1.5 trillion over the next decade. The total federal debt is $31.83 trillion.

New Spending Limits

The Fiscal Responsibility Act requires Congress to approve 12 annual spending bills or face a snapback to spending limits from the previous year, which would mean a 1 percent cut. The legislation aims to limit federal budget growth to 1 percent for the next six years, but that provision will not be enforceable starting in 2025.

One growing concern is the impact the spending limits will have on the Federal Communications Commission's Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) which is making broadband service affordable for over 18.5 million households. Through the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Congress allocated over $17 billion for ACP (and its predecessor, the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program). Many expect ACP to be fully expended within the next year.

Weekend Reads

ICYMI from Benton

Upcoming Events

June 13—Massachusetts Broadband & Digital Equity Summit (NTIA)

June 14—Closing the Digital Divide: The Affordable Connectivity Program on the Ground and in DC (New America)

June 15—Meeting of the Communications Equity and Diversity Council (FCC)

June 26—Smart Rural Community (NTCA—The Rural Broadband Association)

June 28—Readying Rural Communities to Capture the Benefits of Digitalization (University of Idaho Extension)

July 18—Open Meeting of the Internet of Things Advisory Board

August 20––Fiber Connect 2023 (Fiber Broadband Association)

Oct 2-6—Digital Inclusion Week 2023 (National Digital Inclusion Alliance)

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 2023. 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
1041 Ridge Rd, Unit 214
Wilmette, IL 60091
headlines AT benton DOT org

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Broadband Delivers Opportunities and Strengthens Communities

By Kevin Taglang.