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Partisan Disagreement Delays Broadband Funding That Might Come Through HEROES Act

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Screenshot of panelists from SHLB webinar

May 29, 2020 — A slew of bills addressing broadband concerns during the coronavirus pandemic have been proposed, but partisan disagreement over the details of spending packages has delayed the funding of broadband infrastructure, said panelists of a webinar hosted by the Schools, Health, & Libraries Broadband Coalition on Friday.

Panelists discussed the recently proposed bills and the likelihood of their enactment. Although there is recognition of the need to upgrade American infrastructure from both political parties, there has not yet been a major infrastructure bill passed by President Donald Trump.

Trump recently indicated his support for a Phase 4 stimulus package worth $2 trillion in infrastructure spending. Congress is considering bills to add $2 billion to the Rural Health Care Program, $4 billion to the E-rate program, $1 billion for Lifeline, $80 billion for broadband infrastructure, and $1.2 billion for digital literacy.

“Infrastructure” is a broad term and is defined differently along partisan lines. While members of the SHLB panel argued that infrastructure includes broadband, leaders of the Republican Party have previously contested this.

“It is proven that broadband increases economic development,” said Joseph Wender, senior policy adviser to Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass. “If we’re going to continue to lead as a society, we need connectivity.”

The HEROES Act, including a number of initiatives to keep families and businesses online through the duration of the pandemic, passed in the House on May 15 by a vote of 208–199. If it passes in the Senate, the HEROES Act would provide $3 trillion in additional funding, of which approximately $5.5 billion would be allocated to broadband infrastructure.

The bill would also provide $1.5 billion through the Federal Communication Commission’s E-Rate Program, which aims to facilitate distance learning by providing additional funding to schools and libraries in their effort to provide Wi-Fi hot spots and devices to students affected by the digital divide.

Asad Ramzanali, legislative director for the office of Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., said he was hopeful about legislation being passed sooner rather than later.

Moderator Kelcee Griffis, a senior telecom reporter at Law360, suggested that while some provisions of the HEROES Act clearly relate to the coronavirus response, others are things that Democrats have been wanting for a while, such as the Prison Phone Justice provision.

Ramzanali argued that the bill “did not include advantages for Democrats” and that each provision has a “clear link to coronavirus.”

The bill faces a challenge seeking its final approval in the Republican-led Senate. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R -Ky., has argued against any connection between broadband and the coronavirus pandemic and has historically blocked legislation expanding rural broadband.

Wender claimed that there is private bipartisan support for measures aiming to close the digital divide, but Republican House members are proceeding with political caution to avoid challenging their superiors.

“The chances of a big infrastructure bill being passed before the end of Donald Trump’s term are low,” Wender concluded, noting that in the meantime, 7 million homes remain without broadband.

Former Assistant Editor Jericho Casper graduated from the University of Virginia studying media policy. She grew up in Newport News in an area heavily impacted by the digital divide. She has a passion for universal access and a vendetta against anyone who stands in the way of her getting better broadband. She is now Associate Broadband Researcher at the Institute for Local Self Reliance's Community Broadband Network Initiative.

Congress

With Congress Debating Trillions, a Community Guide to Federal Broadband Funding

Muninetworks.org has put together a handy overview of broadband programs – current and pending.

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Photo from office of Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash.

September 30, 2021 – In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Congress and the Biden Administration passed two federal stimulus relief packages with historic levels of funding for programs devoted to advancing digital equity – the American Rescue Plan Act and the Consolidated Appropriations Act.

In early August, legislators in the U.S. Senate passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, a $1.2 trillion infrastructure package which continues many of the federal programs started by previous relief packages and includes $65 billion more for expanding high-speed Internet infrastructure and connectivity. Members of Congress returned from their summer break on September 20th and U.S. House Representatives are expected to vote on the infrastructure relief bill, which enjoys bipartisan support, on September 30th.

This guide consolidates the different funding opportunities made available through various relief packages to assist communities interested in accessing federal funds to expand broadband infrastructure and digital inclusion services. It updates ILSR’s Community Guide to Broadband Funding released in April of 2021, which describes programs established under ARPA and CAA in more detail, provides additional resources and answers FAQs.

Important upcoming deadlines are bolded throughout this guide.

Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act – Pending 

Though the legislation is pending in Congress, the version of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed by the U.S. Senate in August of 2021 includes $65 billion for expanding Internet access and digital inclusion initiatives. The Senate bill takes a more holistic approach to addressing the digital divide than previous relief packages, as it includes historic levels of funding for digital skills training. Of the $65 billion:

  • $42.5 billion is being issued as block grants to states to fund the deployment of broadband infrastructure in “unserved” and “underserved” parts of the country. Funds can also be utilized to deploy affordable networks to low-income, multi-dwelling units (MDUs). Block grants of at least $100 million are reserved for all states.
  • $14.2 billion is devoted to extending and making permanent the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program established under the Consolidated Appropriations Act. The name of the program will change to the Affordable Connectivity Program, the monthly stipend offered will be reduced to $30 a month maximum in most cases, and eligibility for the program will increase to include households within 200 percent of the poverty line.
  • $2.75 billion will go to NTIA to establish programs promoting digital inclusion initiatives for communities which lack the skills, technologies and support necessary to take advantage of Internet connections. Of the $2.75 billion, $1.25 billion ($250 million a year for 5 years) is allocated for a competitive grant program, $60 million is for state planning grants, and $1.44 billion is for state implementation grants.
  • $2 billion will extend the Tribal Connectivity Program administered by NTIA, established under the Consolidated Appropriations Act.
  • $2 billion for USDA’s ReConnect Loan and Grant Program to deploy broadband to rural areas.
  • $1 billion will go to NTIA to create a grant program to expand access to middle-mile infrastructure.
  • $600 million will finance private activity bonds to fund broadband projects in partnership with the private sector.

As this legislation is pending, the rules and deadlines for these programs have yet to be established. A bipartisan federal infrastructure package is expected to pass Congress in the next two months. In the meantime, check out ILSR’s recent piece deciphering broadband provisions in the U.S. Senate infrastructure bill, Broadband Infrastructure Bill: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly.

Resources:

American Rescue Plan Act – Enacted March 2021

With the American Rescue Plan Act, the federal government specifically recognized and began to address critical infrastructure and connectivity needs across the country, and provided billions to states, municipalities, and counties to expand broadband infrastructure. The federal broadband programs introduced under the Rescue Plan required eligible projects to deliver higher-speed Internet connections than the federal government has required in the past, and also placed an emphasis on funding futureproof fiber infrastructure for the first time. The American Rescue Plan appropriated:

1. $350 billion to the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund – aid sent directly to states, counties, local municipalities and Tribal governments eligible to be used to make necessary investments in water, sewer, and broadband infrastructure.

Funding Guidance:

  • Eligible broadband projects are expected to be designed to deliver Internet service that reliably meets or exceeds symmetrical upload and download speeds of 100 Mbps. In areas where the geography makes this speed benchmark impractical to obtain, projects are expected to deliver Internet service that reliably meets or exceeds 100 Mbps download and between at least 20 Mbps and 100 Mbps upload speeds.

Deadlines:

  • Communities have a relatively long window of time to expand broadband infrastructure with these funds. Though communities must allocate the funds by December 2024, broadband projects do not have to be completed until December 2026.
  • The first payment was distributed to localities earlier this summer. The U.S. Treasury is required to distribute the second payment 12 months after the first.

Resources:

2. $10 billion to the Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund – aid issued in the form of state block grants to states, territories, and Tribes to cover the costs of capital projects like broadband infrastructure, and provide funding for connectivity devices and equipment. The focus of the Capital Projects Fund is confronting the need for improved broadband connectivity which was exposed during the pandemic. Capital projects must focus on enabling work, education, and health monitoring, including remote options.

Funding Guidance:

  • The guidelines for this program urge states to pursue “projects that involve broadband networks owned, operated by or affiliated with local governments, nonprofits and cooperatives — providers with less pressure to generate profits and with a commitment to serving entire communities.”
  • Although this is not a competitive grant program, states, territories, and freely associated states must submit an Application and a Grant Plan for their allocation of the Capital Projects Fund through the Treasury Submission Portal; for Tribal Governments, the Application also serves as their Grant Plan.
  • $9.8 billion is available to states through the Capital Projects Fund; $100 million is available to Tribes; $100 million is available to freely associated states.
  • Although local governments are ineligible to be direct recipients of these grants, states can suballocate a portion of their award to local governments, nonprofits and private entities.
  • Read more about eligible projects and grant processes here [pdf].

Deadlines:

  • The Treasury Portal for the fund opened on September 24. Applicants will have the ability to apply through December 24, 2021. Once funds are awarded, eligible entities will be able to use them through December 31, 2026.

Resources:

3. $7.17 billion to the FCC’s Emergency Connectivity Fund – federal program to assist schools and libraries as they transition to remote learning by partially funding the cost of Internet services and eligible equipment.

Deadlines:

  • The initial ECF Program application filing window closed on August 13. Due to demand, a second filing window will open on September 28 and run until October 13.

Resources:

Consolidated Appropriations Act – Enacted December 2020

The Consolidated Appropriations Act directed the FCC to establish the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program and directed NTIA to implement three new broadband grant programs. The federal government addressed broadband affordability for the first time with this relief package. CAA appropriated:

1. $3.2 billion to FCC’s Emergency Broadband Benefit Program – federal program providing $50 to $75/month subsidies for monthly Internet service to eligible households. Internet plans regularly costing less than $50 per month will be free to eligible subscribers. If the participating ISP chooses to provide devices, eligible households can also receive a one-time discount of up to $100 to purchase a laptop, desktop computer, or tablet from providers.

Deadlines:

  • Enrollment for the program began in May of 2021. Funding for the program has not run out and eligible households can continue to access the program today. Learn how to apply here.
  • The program will be indefinitely extended if the pending infrastructure package passes Congress.

Resources:

2. $268 million to NTIA’s Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program – grants available to Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), Tribal colleges and universities (TCUs), Minority-serving institutions (MSIs), and consortiums led by an HBCU, TCU, or MSI including a minority business enterprise or a nonprofit organization in the surrounding community. Eligible equipment includes Wi-Fi hotspots, modems, routers, laptops, tablets, and other Internet-connected devices.

3. $300 million to NTIA’s Broadband Infrastructure Program – grants available to partnerships between states, local jurisdictions, and ISPs to expand fixed broadband service in unserved areas.

4. $980 million to NTIA’s Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program – grants available to Tribal governments and organizations to improve broadband infrastructure.

  • The initial application filing window closed on September 1. The timeline for the program may be extended if the pending federal infrastructure package passes Congress.
  • See NOFO here.
  • NTIA Program Overview Webpage

Editor’s Note: This piece was authored by Jericho Casper, a reporter for the Institute for Local Self Reliance’s Community Broadband Network Initiative. Originally appearing at MuniNetworks.org on September 28, 2021, the piece is republished with permission.

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Congress

House Democrats Fight Against Anti-Crypto Measures in Senate-Passed Infrastructure Bill

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Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif.

August 20, 2021 – Pro-crypto House Democrats pushed back against the Senate Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act’s inclusion of crypto regulatory language, seeking to make it less broad.

The additions of cryptocurrency taxes aim to generate revenue to pay for part of the infrastructure spending. Its authors intended to reduce fraud in reports to the IRS.

Democratic California Reps. Ro Khanna, Eric Swalwell, and Anna Eshoo joined cryptocurrency enthusiasts Rep. Bill Foster, D-Illinois, and Rep. Darren Soto, D-Fla., in urging to amend the infrastructure bill in the House.

In a letter released on August 12, Eshoo advocated to Pelosi that the House should “amend the problematic broker definition,” describing the existing language as “imposing unworkable regulations.”

But there is some feeling that amendments to the bill in the House may not be necessary. According to a Treasury Department official, the agency plans to clarify its definition of a “broker” to be more specific.

Any amendments to the House would force the infrastructure measure back to the Senate.

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Digital Inclusion

Senators Reintroduce Bipartisan Digital Equity Act

Sen. Murray re-introduces bi-partisan that would provide grants to states pushing for digital equity.

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Patty Murray, D-Washington

June 14, 2021– Three Senators have introduced legislation that would provide grants to states that create digital equity plans.

The proposed legislation, reintroduced on Thursday by Patty Murray, D-Washington, Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Angus King, I-Maine, would set-aside $60 million to establish a State Digital Equity Capacity Grant within the Department of Commerce that would “promote the achievement of digital equity, support digital inclusion activities, and build capacity for efforts by States relating to the adoption of broadband by residents of those States.”

The funds from the Digital Equity Act in the Senate would be made available to all states, foundations, corporations, institutions, or agencies. The bill was first introduced by Murray in 2019.

Each state will receive a different grant amount depending on a formula that includes population and access to broadband across the state, to be spent within 5 years of receipt.

In addition to funding for states, the bill creates a  $125-million Digital Equity Competitive Grant Program. This program is also for state agencies and institutions but is more specifically geared toward those that are responsible for “adult education and literacy activities.”

Infrastructure portion

A final pillar of the bill is to create more infrastructure and resources for future development of policies that will continue to promote a bridging of the digital divide.

During a press conference on the bill, Murray told the Broadband Breakfast that she believes the bill will be successful because it gives states and local communities the ability to decide what their needs are. “We cannot dictate that in D.C.,” she remarked.

When asked why the bill will create more permanent solutions, she stated that it, “Provides for the diversity of needs that are going to continue to be out there.”

The senators co-sponsoring the bill said they are confident it will make its way into any infrastructure legislation passed by Congress.

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