Democrats Are Getting Serious About Universal Broadband

Congress this week approved a $7.17 billion Emergency Connectivity Fund that schools and libraries will use to help people get internet access at home. The fund is part of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan sent to President Biden on Wednesday after being approved by the House and Senate. Biden signed the bill into law Thursday.

The emergency fund should help students who live in areas where broadband is available but cannot afford it. This emergency measure may just be a prelude to a $94 billion broadband package that includes $80 billion to deploy high-speed broadband to parts of the US that do not have it.

Democrats introduced the $94 billion broadband initiative Wednesday—it isn’t yet clear whether or when it will pass, but such initiatives have a much better chance now that Democrats control the White House and both chambers of Congress. More details on the larger broadband bill are included later in this article.

With the $7.17 billion emergency fund, the Federal Communications Commission will have to issue regulations within 60 days to carry out Congress’ instructions. Details on when and how the funding will be distributed are thus not yet available. FCC acting chair Jessica Rosenworcel said the fund will be an important tool for closing the “homework gap” that leaves many children without adequate internet access.

“The nation’s homework gap has never been more evident than during this pandemic with the move to remote learning,” Rosenworcel said Wednesday. “So, passage of the American Rescue Plan which would create the Emergency Connectivity Fund is welcome news. That’s because millions of students are locked out of the virtual classroom right now. They can’t do daily schoolwork. They’re the kids sitting outside of the fast food restaurant just trying to catch a Wi-Fi signal to go to class.”

Rosenworcel said recent estimates show that “as many as 17 million kids” are victims of the homework gap with up to a third of Black, Latino, Native American, and Alaska Native students lacking high-speed internet access at home.

“The new funding can be used to pay for eligible equipment and services for schools and libraries to provide to students who need them,” Rosenworcel said.

Under the text of the new law, schools that get funding would distribute it to students and staff to pay for broadband service and equipment at “locations that include locations other than the school.” Similarly, libraries would provide funding to patrons for broadband access at “locations that include locations other than the library.”

The funding could be used for internet service fees and equipment including Wi-Fi hot spots, modems, routers, and “connected devices” such as laptops and tablets. The FCC will have to determine individual funding amounts, but the law allows for reimbursement of up to 100 percent of “reasonable” costs.

The emergency fund would be available throughout the pandemic and for at least one year after the US declares the public health emergency to be over. It would use money from the US Treasury instead of the FCC’s Universal Service Fund, which uses fees paid by phone subscribers to support the E-rate program for schools and libraries.

Separately, House majority whip James Clyburn (D-South Carolina) and senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota), cochair of the Senate Broadband Caucus, announced the $94 billion Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act on Wednesday, saying it will “build high-speed broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved communities to close the digital divide and ensure Americans have internet connectivity to learn and work from home, access telehealth services, and stay connected to loved ones.”

The bill includes “$80 billion to deploy high-speed broadband infrastructure nationwide … $5 billion over five years for low-interest financing of broadband deployment through a new secured loan program … an additional $6 billion for the recently established Emergency Broadband Connectivity Fund … $1 billion to establish grant programs for states to close gaps in broadband adoption, as well as digital inclusion projects for organizations and local communities to implement … $2 billion to enable students without internet at home to participate in remote learning,” a press release from Klobuchar’s office said.


Wired

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