Congress finally reached an agreement on and passed a COVID-19 relief bill Monday, and that legislation provides billions in funding for broadband-related efforts.
The relief bill establishes the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program at the FCC. Under the program, eligible households may receive a discount of up to $50, or up to $75 on Tribal lands, off the cost of internet service and a subsidy for low-cost devices like computers and tablets.
The bill provides the FCC with $1.9bln to fund the “rip and replace” program that is designed to remove insecure equipment from the nation’s communications networks. The Commission adopted rules earlier this month that included provisions to provide funds to smaller providers of advanced communications services for the removal and replacement of insecure equipment. At the time, Commission staff estimated the program would require at least $1.6bln to properly reimburse providers.
Congress also provided the FCC with the $65mln needed to implement the Digital Opportunity Data Collection, which will see the Commission gather more granular data to create more accurate maps tracking where broadband service is currently available and where the digital divide still exists. Lawmakers also saw value in continuing the FCC’s COVID-19 Telehealth Program, providing the Commission with an additional $250mln to assist health care providers that are currently providing connected care services to patients.
Beyond pure dollars and cents, Congress re-examined the calendar of spectrum auctions for the next few years. It has now mandated that the FCC begin auctioning the 3.45-3.55GHz band by the end of 2021 and has repealed a previous requirement to auction the T-band, a spectrum band that is currently used by first responders and emergency personnel for communications services.
Outside of Commission-related activities, Congress established two new grant programs at the NTIA. The first, funded at $1bln, is directed to Tribal governments to be used for broadband development, telehealth, distance learning, affordability and digital inclusion. The second is a $300mln broadband deployment program to support infrastructure deployment to areas lacking broadband, particularly rural areas.
The Congressional support was applauded by many across the industry, including FCC chmn Ajit Pai, even before the legislation passed.
“I salute Congressional leaders for working together in a bipartisan manner to reach agreement on this consequential legislation that will help protect our national security, close the digital divide, advance telehealth, and promote American leadership in 5G,” Pai said in a statement. “The FCC will act quickly to implement the bill’s important provisions once it is adopted and signed into law.”