Show Us the Money: Federal Broadband Support During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Friday, April 23, 2021
Show Us the Money:
Federal Broadband Support During the COVID-19 Pandemic
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 April 19-23, 2021
Sorry, Rod Tidwell fans, that headline was total clickbait. But a number of readers have reached out to us at Benton asking for help figuring out where to find all the pools of broadband support appropriated by Congress over the past year. So we've decided to create this placeholder for all the funding we've seen in the CARES Act, the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, and the American Rescue Plan.
In the March 2020 CARES Act, Congress provided $100 million to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's ReConnect program. ReConnect furnishes loans and grants to provide funds for the costs of construction, improvement, or acquisition of facilities and equipment needed to provide broadband service in eligible rural areas. The USDA is distributing the funding as grants—a departure from the first two rounds of ReConnect, in which some funding was awarded in the form of grants, some was awarded in the form of loans, and some was awarded as a combination of grants and loans.
In the December 2020 Consolidated Appropriations Act, Congress established a $1 billion grant program at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to support broadband connectivity on tribal lands throughout the country. Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program 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. The NTIA recently announced that the grants will require no matching funds. An application window is expected to open this summer.
The Consolidated Appropriations Act also established a $300 million broadband deployment grant program at NTIA to support broadband infrastructure deployment to areas lacking broadband, especially rural areas. Broadband Infrastructure Program 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.
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 secure afford broadband service. NTIA is working on rules for the Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program.
In March 2021, the American Rescue Plan provided $219.8 billion to states, territories, and Tribal entities for fiscal year 2021 and will remain available until December 31, 2024. The law makes clear that funds can be used for local economic recovery purposes, including assistance to households, small businesses and nonprofits, assistance to hard-hit industries like tourism, travel, and hospitality, and water, sewer, and broadband infrastructure investment. No money is earmarked specifically for broadband. And, similar to the state fund, the American Rescue Plan provides $120.2 billion to local governments and counties for fiscal year 2021 and will remain available until December 31, 2024. The law divides the local allocation of funds into two equal tranches of payments spaced 12 months apart. The funds can be used for local economic recovery purposes, including assistance to households, small businesses and nonprofits, assistance to hard-hit industries like tourism, travel, and hospitality, and water, sewer, and broadband infrastructure investment. [Update: The Department of the Treasury recently released an Interim Final Rule guiding broadband investment with these funds. See Benton's summary.]
Finally, the American Rescue Plan also includes a $10 billion Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund to help states, territories, and Tribal governments to carry out critical capital projects directly enabling work, education, and health monitoring, including remote options, in response to the pandemic. The Department of Treasury is expected to issue guidelines for the Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund in May 2021. Keep an eye on https://home.treasury.gov/policy-issues/coronavirus/assistance-for-state... for updates.
The CARES Act included $50 million for the Institute of Museum and Library Services to expand digital network access in areas of the country where such access is lacking, including the purchase of internet-enabled devices and provisions for technical support services in response to the disruption of schooling and other community services during the COVID-19 emergency. In late September 2020, IMLS announced $13,800,000 in grants to support the role of museums and libraries in responding to the coronavirus pandemic. In Benton's hometown, the Evanston Public Library’s “Ready to Work: Bridging the Digital Divide for Tomorrow’s Workforce” program received support to provide access to technology and resources that help patrons build the necessary skills to be job ready. The library is providing Ready-to-Work Starter Kits helping to close the digital divide, build basic computer skills, provide skill-building online tools that individuals are not able to afford themselves, and promote digital literacy.
In December 2020, the Consolidated Appropriations Act established 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. The FCC is expected to launch the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program in April or May 2021. [
In March, the American Rescue Plan included $9.961 billion for a new Homeowner Assistance Fund at the Department of the Treasury. From the fund, Treasury will make grants to states to administer programs assisting homeowners with mortgage payments; financial assistance to reinstate a mortgage related to a period of forbearance, delinquency, or default; principal reduction; interest rate reductions; utilities and internet service; homeowners insurance, flood insurance, and mortgage insurance; and other assistance to promote housing stability for homeowners.
Telehealth and Distance Education
The CARES Act includes several telehealth provisions, relaxing guidelines for Medicare coverage and allowing for connected health at federally-qualified health centers (FQHCs), rural health clinics (RHCs), and hospices. The Health Resources and Services Administration at the Department of Health and Human Services received $180 million to support rural critical access hospitals, rural tribal health, and telehealth programs. The law also provided $27 billion for HHS’s Public Health and Social Services Emergency Fund for Coronavirus measures, including telehealth access and infrastructure. The Department of Veterans Administration received $3.1 billion to:
- Provide flexibility for the Veteran Directed Care program, including telephone enrollment and renewals;
- Enhance health and housing initiatives for homeless veterans, including increased use of telehealth for programs with Veterans Administration case managers, temporarily eliminating funding limits for programs providing direct support services to homeless veterans, and providing flexibility to veterans in these programs; and
- Enter into agreements with telecommunications companies to provide broadband for veterans in support of providing telemental health care.
At the Department of the Interior, the Indian Health Service got $1.032 billion, a portion of which could be used for new investments for telehealth services and electronic health records improvement.
The Federal Communications Commission received $200 million for the COVID-19 Telehealth Program to ensure access to connected care services and devices in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and surge in demand for connected care services. The support provided through the COVID-19 Telehealth Program helped eligible health care providers purchase telecommunications services, information services, and devices necessary to provide critical connected care services, whether for treatment of coronavirus or other health conditions during the coronavirus pandemic. In December, Congress appropriated an additional $249.95 million for the COVID–19 Telehealth Program.
On April 2, 2020, the FCC established the Connected Care Pilot Program within the Universal Service Fund (USF), making available up to $100 million over three years to examine how USF can help support the trend towards connected care services, particularly for low-income Americans and veterans. The Pilot Program will help defray eligible health care providers’ costs of providing connected care services. The FCC expects that the Pilot Program will provide meaningful data that will help the agency better understand how USF funds can support health care provider and patient use of connected care services, and how supporting health care provider and patient use of connected care services can improve health outcomes and reduce health care costs.
The CARES Act allocated $13.5 billion to states which distributed 90 percent of those funds to local educational agencies to use for coronavirus-response activities including purchasing educational technology to support online learning for all students served by the local educational agency. The law also made available funding to help college students transition to distance education.
In December, the Consolidated Appropriations Act included $81.8 billion for the Governor's Emergency Education Relief Fund. The U.S. Department of Education will award grants to governors' offices. 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. States are determining how best to use the funds to improve education during the pandemic. The USDA determined that all distance learning and telemedicine services serve the intended purpose of the funding. The Consolidated Appropriations Act provides an additional $65 million in funding for the program in 2021. Funds can 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, and
- Inside wiring and similar infrastructure that furthers distance learning and telemedicine services.
- Acquisition of instructional programming that is a capital asset
- Acquisition of technical assistance and instruction for using eligible equipment
In March, the American Rescue Plan created the Emergency Connectivity Fund, providing $7.171 billion to reimburse schools and libraries for providing free broadband service (and connected devices) to students and patrons at their homes. The Emergency Connectivity Fund is a huge infusion into the Federal Communications Commission's E-Rate Program which, since 1996, has helped make telecommunications services more affordable for schools and libraries. The E-Rate program has traditionally funded broadband service to and within schools and libraries; the new law allows these community anchor institutions to extend service farther into the community, reaching people where they live. As you read this, the final public comments are due as the FCC devises rules to govern Emergency Connectivity Fund support. The FCC is expected to issue rules in mid-May.
In the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 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. The Consolidated Appropriations Act expanded 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. At the February 17, 2021 Federal Communications Commission open meeting, commissioners launched a proceeding to change rules in line with the Consolidated Appropriations Act.
- The best broadband in the US isn’t in New York or San Francisco. It’s in Chattanooga. (Quartz)
- Creating an Emergency Connectivity Fund to Outlast the Pandemic (Schools Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition)
- A Global Tipping Point for Reining In Tech Has Arrived (New York Times)
- Nebraska PSC Commissioner Crystal Rhoades: Only 3 Percent of Eligible State Residents receiving Lifeline Aid is an Outrage
Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)
- It Will Take a Lot More Than Money to Fix the Digital Divide (Slate)
- GOP Senators Release Outline of $568 Billion Infrastructure Plan
- House Commerce Committee Republicans Caution FCC Chair Rosenworcel on Rolling Back Internet Service Protections for Americans
- House Commerce Committee Leaders Urge NTIA to Provide Leadership Across the Administration in the Management of Federal Spectrum
- Europe Proposes Strict Rules for Artificial Intelligence (European Commission)
ICYMI from Benton
- Focusing on Affordability: What Broadband Adoption Rates in Cities Tell Us About Getting More People Online (John Horrigan)
- The National Urban League's Approach to Digital Equity
- How Does the CARES Act Connect Us?
- The Last Broadband Gifts From the 116th Congress
- American Rescue Plan: Broadband and the Social Safety Net
Apr 26—National Supply Chain Integrity Joint Workshop (FCC)
Apr 26 & 27—USAC Board Meeting (Universal Service Administrative Company)
Apr 28—Make-Ready for Broadband: Are Poles Getting in the Way? (SHLB)
Apr 29—Bringing Dark Patterns to Light: An FTC Workshop (FTC)
Apr 29—Nomination Hearing for OSTP Director (Senate Commerce Committee)
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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