Republican HEALS Would Rip and Replace Broadband

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Friday, July 31, 2020

Weekly Digest

Republican HEALS Would Rip and Replace Broadband

 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 27-31

Kevin Taglang

As federal COVID-19 relief is set to expire, Senate Republicans finally unveiled their "starting point" for negotiations between the Senate, the House, and the Administration. Two weeks ago, we wondered if extending broadband's reach and connecting more Americans would be part of the mix. Now we have the answer. At a time when working and learning from home are so important to keeping people healthy, Senate Republicans propose doing nothing to get more of us connected online. Those senators might not have the final say on the matter, but can we stand to fail at this moment?


Rip and Replace

The Senate Republicans only broadband-related provisions in their proposal will not deliver new or better service to anyone.

Back on March 12, President Donald Trump signed the Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Act of 2019 establishing: 

  1. A mechanism to prevent communications equipment or services that pose a national security risk from entering U.S. networks, and
  2. The Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Reimbursement Program to remove and replace any such equipment or services currently used in U.S. networks.

Specifically, the law prohibits the use of the FCC's Universal Service Fund to obtain communications equipment or services from a company that poses a national security risk to U.S. communications networks. The Federal Communications Commission is required to publish and maintain a list of such equipment or services. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration will establish a program to share information regarding supply chain security risks with trusted communications providers and suppliers.

The law creates the Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Reimbursement Program at the Federal Communications Commission 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.

In March, FCC Chairman Pai celebrated the law's passage saying:

This new law ratifies the FCC’s recently-adopted initiative to help small, rural telecommunications companies end their reliance on manufacturers that pose national security threats. Last November, the FCC initially designated two companies—Huawei and ZTE—as threats to the communications supply chain. We are now considering whether to finalize those preliminary designations while also collecting data about where equipment and services from these two companies are currently deployed. The FCC’s decisive action—along with enactment of this new law—positions us to move forward quickly to protect the American people.

Pai also called on Congress to quickly appropriate the necessary funding to reimburse carriers for replacing any network equipment or services found to be a national security threat.

The Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection, and Schools Act (HEALS Act), unveiled this week by Senate Republicans, includes a $306 billion emergency appropriations package introduced by Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL). One billion of the $306 billion package would go to the FCC to implement the Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Act, creating the Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Reimbursement Program. ($5 million of the $1 billion are reserved for FCC administrative costs.)

In February, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that eligible communications providers would request about $800 million in reimbursements over the 2021-2025 period and about $200 million after 2025. Some providers may quickly remove and replace covered equipment, but, for technical reasons, others would probably take longer to do so. Over the 2021-2025 period, CBO estimates, the FCC would spend $781 million to establish and administer the program and distribute reimbursements

Broadband providers receiving reimbursements from the program may use funds only for purposes of permanently removing, replacing, and disposing of equipment and services that were purchased, rented, leased, or otherwise obtained by the provider before August 14, 2018, if the covered equipment or service is included on the FCC's initial list. Congress indicated that, at a minimum, it expects the FCC's initial list to include equipment and services produced or provided by Huawei Technologies Co. Limited (Huawei), Zhongxing Telecommunications Equipment Corporation (ZTE), and any subsidiary or affiliate of either entity. In June, the FCC did, in fact, designate Huawei and ZTE as national security threats

No Broadband Upgrades

HEALS Act funding may make some small broadband networks more secure -- but it will not allow them to provide better service.

In a report which accompanies the Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Act of 2019, Congress makes its intention clear that FCC rules should prohibit the use of Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Reimbursement Program funds for network upgrades unless a wireless carrier is swapping out 3G equipment for 4G or 5G. But in areas that are, say, currently served by a 10/1 wired broadband network, the rip and replace program will result in a new network with the same speeds, reaching no new customers.

As he unveiled the HEALS Act, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said, "More Americans are dying every day. Millions and millions are unemployed.... Our nation needs to smartly and safely re-open while keeping up the medical battle. We need to get kids safely back to school and adults safely back to work without losing ground in the healthcare fight." The safest way to accomplish that goal is to ensure more people can work and learn from their homes. High-performance broadband enables that. 

House Bills Await Senate Action

As we noted earlier this month, Democrats included in the HEROES Act a number of provisions to keep people connected and help others obtain broadband service. The bill awaiting Senate action 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 July 1, the House also passed the Moving Forward Act, a $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan that 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.

So the contrast is clear: Republicans, in the name of national security, want us to spend a billion dollars so that people served by small ISPs can get the same broadband service they have today. Democrats, in the name of public health, would have us spend billions to ensure affordable broadband networks reach and connect more people.

Will We Address Broadband Needs?

The prospects for a quick agreement between the Trump administration and congressional Democrats on a new round of aid for the ailing economy faded on July 29, as President Trump undercut his own party’s efforts to negotiate a deal and a White House official declared that a lifeline to unemployed workers would run out as scheduled at week’s end. With negotiations barely started to find a middle ground between Republicans’ $1 trillion plan and Democrats’ $3 trillion package, President Trump poured cold water on the entire enterprise, saying that he would prefer a bare-bones package that would send “payments to the people” and protect them from being evicted.

“The rest of it, we’re so far apart, we don’t care,” said President Trump. “We really don’t care.” He called the Republican proposal “sort of semi-irrelevant.”

Republican senators splintered into factions over their party’s proposal for the next coronavirus-aid package, as GOP lawmakers’ antipathy toward government spending ran into the turbulence of election-year politics. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said if Sen. McConnell can get half of Senate Republicans to vote for the bill, “that’d be quite an accomplishment.” So any agreement would need to attract significant support from Democrats to clear Congress. But with the two parties deeply at odds over how to structure the package and how large it should be, the administration’s outreach to Democratic leaders has failed to produce progress toward a deal. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) called Republicans and their proposal “ununified, unserious and completely unsatisfactory.”

With so many Americans suffering — and an election so close at hand — it appears to be one of those “too big to fail” moments when not delivering federal relief just doesn’t seem like an acceptable outcome for those in power.

Still, given the current state of things, failure remains a real possibility.

Quick Bits

Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)

ICYMI from Benton

Upcoming Events

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

Aug 5 -- Champions of Broadband: Mignon Clyburn (Broadband Breakfast)

Aug 5 -- A Conversation on Racial Equity and Technology (New America)

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.

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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.