The Last Broadband Gifts From the 116th Congress

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Friday, January 15, 2021

Weekly Digest

The Last Broadband Gifts From the 116th Congress

 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 January 11-15, 2021

Kevin Taglang
Taglang

With great drama, the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 became law on December 27, 2021. The $2.3 trillion COVID relief and government spending bill extended unemployment benefits and ensured the government can keep running. The $900 billion COVID relief provision includes over $7 billion to help improve connectivity in the U.S. Here's a rundown of the support for broadband in the new law including discounted broadband service for low-income people, funding to make telecommunications networks more secure, grants for deploying new broadband networks in rural and Tribal areas, connecting minority communities, supporting telehealth, improving broadband maps, better coordination of federal broadband efforts, and more spectrum for 5G services.

I. The Emergency Broadband Benefit for Low-Income Americans

The law establishes a temporary, emergency broadband benefit program at the Federal Communications Commission to help low-income Americans, including those economically-challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic, get connected or remain connected to broadband. The program will supply a $50 monthly discount ($75/month for those living on tribal lands) to qualifying households to help them afford broadband service, and a subsidy of up to $100 for a low-cost device such as a computer, laptop, or tablet. 

Congress allocated $3.2 billion for this new program which is intended to last for up to six months after the COVID crisis passes. On January 4, the FCC released a Public Notice asking for comment on how to best implement this new program which Congress expects to be up and running in the next two months.

 

II. The “Rip-and-Replace” Communications Security Program

Congress provided $1.9 billion to fully fund the Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Act (Public Law 116-124) which established: 

  1. a mechanism to prevent communications equipment or services that pose a national security risk from entering U.S. networks, and
  2. a program to remove any such equipment or services currently used in U.S. networks.

Specifically, the bill prohibits the use of certain federal funds to obtain communications equipment or services from a company that poses a national security risk to U.S. communications networks. (The FCC maintains a list of such equipment or services.) Each communications provider must submit an annual report to the FCC regarding whether it has purchased, rented, leased, or otherwise obtained any prohibited equipment and if so, provide a detailed justification for such action.

"Rip and Replace" was a major provision of the Senate Republicans' HEALS Act proposal back in July

The Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Act established the Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Reimbursement Program to supply small communications providers (i.e., providers with 2 million or fewer customers) with funds to offset the cost of removing prohibited equipment or services from their networks and replacing it with more secure communications equipment or services. The Consolidated Appropriations Act expands eligibility for the rip-and-replace reimbursement program to communications providers with 10 million subscribers or less but still prioritizes reimbursement for providers with 2 million subscribers or less.

In addition, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) must establish a program to share information regarding supply chain security risks with trusted communications providers and suppliers.

III. The Tribal Broadband Connectivity Grant Program

The new law establishes a $1 billion grant program at NTIA to support broadband connectivity on tribal lands throughout the country. The grants will be directed to tribal governments to be used for broadband infrastructure deployment on tribal lands; affordable broadband programs including free or reduced-cost broadband service and preventing disconnection of existing service; and telehealth, distance learning, digital inclusion, and broadband adoption activities. Networks receiving support must provide broadband service with a download speed of not less than 25 megabits per second, an upload speed of not less than 3 megabits per second; and a latency sufficient to support real-time, interactive applications.

IV. Grants for Broadband Connectivity

The law establishes a $300 million broadband deployment grant program at NTIA to support broadband infrastructure deployment to areas lacking broadband, especially rural areas. The grants will be issued to qualifying partnerships between state and local governments and fixed broadband providers. Priority for grants will be given to networks that would reach the most unserved Americans. Networks receiving support must provide broadband service with a download speed of not less than 25 megabits per second, an upload speed of not less than 3 megabits per second; and a latency sufficient to support real-time, interactive applications.

Grants are to be awarded to a "covered partnership,' which Congress defines in the law as a partnership between a state (or one or more political subdivisions of a state) and a fixed broadband service provider. The NTIA is to prioritize applications for these grants by i) the greatest number of households in the service area, ii) rural areas, iii) cost-effectiveness, and iv) projects building networks providing service with higher-speeds. 

Look for the NTIA to seek applicants for these grants in February 2021.

V. Connecting Minority Communities

The new law includes S. 4422, the Connecting Minority Communities Act, which establishes an Office of Minority Broadband Initiatives at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. The office is charged with:

  • collaborating with Federal agencies that carry out broadband internet access service support programs to determine how to expand access to broadband internet access service and other digital opportunities in communities surrounding historically Black colleges and universities, Tribal Colleges and Universities, and Hispanic-serving institutions;
  • collaborating with state, local, and Tribal governments, historically Black colleges or universities, Tribal colleges or universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, and stakeholders in the telecommunications, education, business, and technology fields to:
    • promote (i) initiatives relating to broadband internet access service connectivity for anchor communities; and (ii) digital opportunities for these communities;
    • develop recommendations to promote the rapid, expanded deployment of broadband internet access service to unserved historically Black colleges or universities, Tribal colleges or universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, and anchor communities, including to senior citizens and veterans who live in anchor communities;
    • promote activities that would accelerate the adoption of broadband internet access service (including any associated equipment or personnel necessary to access and use that service, such as modems, routers, devices that combine a modem and a router, Wi-Fi hotspots, and connected devices) (i) by historically Black colleges or universities, Tribal Colleges or Universities, and Hispanic-serving institutions; and (ii) within these communities;
    • upon request, provide assistance to historically Black colleges or universities, Tribal colleges or universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, and leaders from anchor communities with respect to navigating Federal programs dealing with broadband internet access service;
    • promote digital literacy skills, including by providing opportunities for virtual or in-person digital literacy training and education; and
    • explore how to leverage investment in infrastructure with respect to broadband internet access service to (i) expand connectivity with respect to that service in these communities; (ii) encourage investment in communities that have been designated as qualified opportunity zones; and (iii) serve as a catalyst for adoption of that service, so as to promote job growth and economic development and deployment of advanced mobile technologies;

Congress also appropriated $285 million to support historically Black colleges and universities, Tribal colleges and universities, and minority-serving education institutions, including when they partner with minority-owned businesses, to expand broadband capacity and use at the school and in the surrounding community, including by assisting students to afford broadband service. NTIA has 45 days to issue rules establishing the Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program.

VI. The COVID–19 Telehealth Program

Congress appropriated an additional $249.95 million to the FCC for its COVID-19 Telehealth Program authorized under the CARES Act (Public Law 116-136). The COVID-19 Telehealth Program supports health care providers to bring connected care services to patients at their homes or mobile locations in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  The program provides support to eligible health care providers responding to the COVID-19 pandemic by fully funding their telecommunications services, information services, and devices necessary to provide critical connected care services. The CARES Act provided $200 million for the program and the FCC completed naming awardees back in July 2020.

On January 6, the FCC released a public notice on program evaluation metrics. Comments are due January 19.

The new law also puts in place new transparency obligations for the program surrounding the FCC’s review of applications and directs the FCC to ensure, to the extent feasible, that all states benefit from the program.

VII. Funding for Better Broadband Maps

In March 2020, President Trump signed into law the Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability (DATA) Act which requires the FCC to dramatically reform the nation's problematic broadband deployment maps. The Consolidated Appropriations Act fully funds (at $65 million) the FCC’s development of new, more accurate, and more granular broadband availability maps. These maps are meant to help the Federal government better target support for broadband deployment.

VIII. Better Broadband Coordination

The Consolidated Appropriations Act includes S. 1294, the Broadband Interagency Coordination Act, which:

  • requires the FCC, the Department of Agriculture's Rural Utilities Service, and NTIA to enter into an interagency agreement requiring coordination and information sharing between the agencies regarding the distribution of funds for broadband deployment; 
  • designates the FCC as the entity primarily responsible for coordinating information sharing among the agencies, and storing and maintaining access to broadband deployment data; and
  • directs the FCC to seek public comment on the effectiveness of the agreement, with a report to Congress on those comments.

The FCC, NTIA, and USDA entered into an interagency agreement on June 25, 2021

IX. The Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth

The Consolidated Appropriations Act includes H.R. 1328, the Advancing Critical Connectivity Expands Service, Small Business Resources, Opportunities, Access, and Data Based on Assessed Need and Demand (ACCESS BROADBAND) Act, which requires the Department of Commerce to establish the Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

The office is meant to connect with communities that need access to high-speed internet and hold regional workshops to share best practices and effective strategies for promoting broadband access and adoption. The ACCESS BROADBAND Act also requires the office to:

  • develop targeted broadband training and presentations for various demographic communities through media,
  • develop and distribute publications providing guidance to communities for expanding broadband access and adoption, and
  • track construction and use of and access to any broadband infrastructure built using federal support.

Under the law, the office will consult with any agency offering a federal broadband support program in order to streamline the application process for financial assistance or grants.

The office, any agency that offers a federal broadband support program, and the FCC through the Universal Service Fund shall coordinate to ensure that broadband support is being distributed in an efficient, technology-neutral, and financially sustainable manner.

X. Spectrum for 5G Wireless Service

Congress included S. 4803, the Beat China by Harnessing Important, National Airwaves for 5G Act of 2020 or the Beat CHINA for 5G Act in the appropriations law. These provisions direct the President, acting through the NTIA, to withdraw or modify federal spectrum assignments in the 3450 to 3550 MHz band, and will direct the FCC to begin a system of competitive bidding to permit non-federal, flexible-use services in such band no later than December 31, 2021.

XI. Funds for Distance Learning

The new law includes $81.8 billion for the Governor's Emergency Education Relief Fund. The U.S. Department of Education will award governor's offices grants. The program is a continuation of a program created by the CARES Act. One of the allowable uses for the funds is addressing student broadband access and connectivity gaps. It will be up to states to determine how best to use the funds to improve education during the pandemic.

XII. The Distance Learning and Telemedicine Grant Program

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Distance Learning and Telemedicine program helps rural communities use telecommunications to connect to each other and to the world, overcoming the effects of remoteness and low population density. Funds may be used for:

  • Acquisition of eligible capital assets, such as:
    • Broadband facilities
    • Audio, video, and interactive video equipment
    • Terminal and data terminal equipment
    • Computer hardware, network components, and software
    • Inside wiring and similar infrastructure that further distance learning and telemedicine services
  • Acquisition of instructional programming that is a capital asset
  • Acquisition of technical assistance and instruction for using eligible equipment

The Consolidated Appropriations Act provides an additional $65 million in funding for the program in 2021. Earlier in the year, the CARES Act had added $25 million in funding to prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus. The USDA determined that all distance learning and telemedicine services serve that purpose.

Conclusion

On January 14, President-elect Joe Biden unveiled a $1.9 trillion plan to battle the spread of the coronavirus and alleviate the economic toll of the last year. In his remarks, he promised to deliver his Build Back Better Recovery Plan to Congress next month. That plan is expected to include major investment in infrastructure, including broadband networks, and "in skills and training needed by our workers to compete and win the global economy of the future." 

There's a great deal of work to be done to see the nation through our current crisis and rebuild our economy. Federal leadership is recognizing that broadband will play a huge role in our recovery and investment in our shared future.

Quick Bits

Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)

ICYMI from Benton

Upcoming Events

Jan 20 -- 59th Inaugural Ceremonies (U.S. Congress)

Jan 26-27 -- 17th Annual State of the Net Conference (Internet Education Foundation)

Jan 27 -- Tools for Broadband: Mapping the Rural Broadband Buildout (Broadband Breakfast)

Jan 28 -- The National Strategy To Secure 5G Industry Listening (NTIA)

 

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
847-328-3049
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