Addressing the Digital Divide and the Covid Relief Package
The two Covid relief bills passed over the last three months include more than $30 billion for broadband access and infrastructure. Each piece of legislation allocates funds through grant and program vehicles. An additional $100 billion has been proposed for high-speed broadband infrastructure and subsidies for internet access as part of the White House’s American Jobs Plan. Taken altogether, this shows a clear interest by leaders in Washington to address the digital divide for Americans struggling to access online resources. It is also essential that Congress address the underlying issues that define the digital divide and invest in solutions. To ensure future-proof equity for digital America, Congress must think beyond access to broadband.
What is in the Relief Packages for Broadband Access
Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act.
Broadband Infrastructure Deployment Grants (NTIA): Allocates $300 million through grants for broadband infrastructure projects. Grantees include states or political subdivisions and fixed broadband providers (think of your local high-speed internet provider).
Tribal Broadband Connectivity Grants (NTIA): Provides $1 billion for broadband infrastructure deployment, subsidies for high-speed internet, distance learning initiatives, telehealth, and broadband adoption activities for Tribal lands.
Emergency Broadband Benefit Program (FCC): Allocates $3.2 billion in subsidies for broadband service and equipment to qualified households. Eligible participants will receive reimbursement for fees over $50 and $75 if a participant resides on Tribal land.
Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program (NTIA): Includes $285 million for grants to minority institutions such as colleges or universities, organizations, and associations to support broadband development and adoption.
COVID-19 Telehealth Program (FCC): Adds $250 million to the FCC Telehealth Program.
Amendments to Secure and Trusted Networks Reimbursement Program (“Rip and Replace”): Allocates $1.9 billion in reimbursements for providers obligated to remove and replace covered communications equipment.
Broadband Mapping Funds (FCC): Appropriates $98 million for the FCC to carry out its responsibilities related to the Broadband DATA Act, to implement new data collection and mapping processes.
American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (H.R 1319, “Act”)
Emergency Connectivity Fund: Includes $7.17 billion to enable remote learning. It requires the FCC to issue rules on distributing the funds within 60 days of the Act’s enactment.
Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds: Allocates $350 billion to local governments and allows funds to be used “to make necessary investments in water, sewer, or broadband infrastructure.” Allows funds to be transferred to private nonprofit organizations or a special-purpose unit of state or local government.
Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund: Provides $10 billion to 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 public health emergency.” Since the requirements include “remote options,” it is likely that broadband capital projects would qualify.
Economic Development Administration (EDA) Appropriation: Provides $3 billion for the EDA and includes broadband projects in economically distressed areas.
Homeowners Assistance Fund: Appropriates almost $10 billion for states to use for payment assistance on household “qualified expenses,” including internet services, stemming from COVID-19.
Proposed American Jobs Plan
The Biden Administration proposed $100 billion to:
Extend high-speed broadband infrastructure for 100 % coverage: Prioritizes support for broadband networks owned, operated by, or affiliated with local governments, nonprofits, and Tribal nations to build out broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved areas to reach 100 % high-speed broadband coverage.
Promote transparency and competition: Promote price transparency and competition among internet providers.
Reduce the cost of broadband internet service and promote more widespread adoption: Determine a long-term solution to reduce internet prices for all Americans, increase adoption in rural and urban areas, promote transparency among internet providers, and save taxpayer money.
Effective Distribution of Funds
Today’s relief efforts target the 14.5 million Americans in rural and urban areas that are being left behind as their ability to participate in the economy becomes increasingly dependent on internet access. In a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, 87 percent of Americans said that the internet was either essential or important to them during the public health crisis.
To ensure funds are distributed effectively, federal agencies need to know where investment in broadband is necessary. Immediate improvements must be made to the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Broadband Maps to understand where resources should be focused. Congress sought to address the issue with the passage of the DATA Act, among other legislative proposals. However, over a year later, lawmakers revealed their frustrations about the lack of progress made to date and heightened urgency to update this essential tool.
In the immediate future, the U.S. will see how innovative technologies bridge the digital divide. For example, low earth orbit satellite systems are outpacing cable or fiber-optic connections in delivering high-speed internet to rural communities. Additionally, 5G wireless networks are providing faster internet to broader swaths of the country.
While long-term investments in broadband will be essential to delivering baseline connectivity to all Americans, Congress must be willing to apply funds to new and emerging technologies that provide the same (or better) level of connection. For instance, a bipartisan group of senators wrote an open letter calling for greater investment in broadband networks capable of providing more sufficient download and upload speeds. They write that a minimum speed of 100/100 Mbps instead of the regularly relied upon standards of 25/3 Mbps or even 10/1 Mbps will help more families keep connection. Additionally, access to reliable, high-speed internet is key to participating in remote learning, telehealth, and some employment opportunities.
An even more significant challenge will be determining how to ensure households and communities receive the technology equipment and support services they need to access online resources. Older adults are generally less likely to use telehealth resources, and during the pandemic, many individuals had difficultly booking vaccine appointments online. So far, Congress has approached the digital divide by focusing on addressing the disconnect between rural and urban internet access, committing billions of dollars to reach more households in need of high-speed internet. However, the last mile in addressing the digital divide is not just the connection to the internet, it is ensuring that technical support is available to users who may not get those services through an employer.
While infrastructure buildouts are necessary to make broadband access more equitable, it unintentionally leaves a massive divide in urban settings where communities are at a disadvantage. Whether those without internet access are unable to afford or lack the digital literacy to use the technology, anyone without access to reliable, regular, high-speed internet was put at a disadvantage when the world went online in 2020. Increasing the adoption and use of broadband services will require better affordability of services and devices, such as computers and smartphones, and improved digital literacy.
Congress and the administration correctly focused relief efforts toward those most in need of support, including communities of color, low-income households, veterans, as well as rural, underserved families and businesses. The new aid packages provide state and local governments with billions of dollars to use at their discretion including addressing broadband infrastructure and access. Covid relief efforts for internet access must be forward-looking to ensure millions of Americans are not left behind by the digital divide. As further details circulate on how funds are allocated to address this issue, BPC will update our recommendations to include ongoing research on the impact of each program.
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