Billions of dollars more in broadband subsidies will soon be flowing now that the House has voted mostly along party lines to pass President Biden's almost $2 trillion American Rescue Plan COVID 19-related aid package (the vote was 220 to 211). It passed the Senate over the weekend.
The President is expected to sign the bill into law by week's end.
As part of the massive bill, the FCC will have 60 days to set up an E-rate Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF) of $7.6 billion (minus $1 million to pay for FCC Inspector General oversight of the program). The Universal Service Administrative Company, which oversees the FCC's ongoing USF subsidy program, will administer the emergency fund, which will be kept separate from USF subsidies.
The ECF will go to eligible schools and libraries to pay 100% for the costs of equipment and/or advanced communications service for students both in school and remote learning, and for library patrons both in libraries and remotely. The money is available until 2030.
Following the vote, Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-N.J.) called it vital economic relief, including "expand internet connectivity to help students and teachers without home internet access so that we can close the homework gap."
Currently the FCC's USF E-rate subsidy can't be used for home broadband or equipment, though the FCC under new acting chair Jessica Rosenworcel is trying to change that.
Eligible equipment includes computers, Wi-Fi hotspots, modems, routers, and connected devices.
Also as part of the bill, there is a homeowners assistance fund in the Department of Treasury that will contain $9,961,000,000 that states can tap (until 2025) for payment assistance for "qualified expenses" of individuals, primarily low-income households, who need help due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
While the fund can be used for everything from mortgage relief to flood insurance, it can also be used for "internet service, including broadband internet access service."
The FCC is currently preparing to give out the $3.2 billion EBB funding, which comprises a $50-per-month subsidy to eligible low-income households ($75-per on tribal lands), plus a $100 one-time payment for equipment so long as the recipient of the payment also contributes to the equipment cost.
The bill also includes money for federal IT modernization and cybersecurity.
“As the United States recovers from the COVID pandemic, it is important to ensure government can continue to serve citizens online securely and effectively," said Jason Oxman, president of global tech trade association ITI. “We commend the U.S. House of Representatives for approving key investments to not only modernize federal information technology but also better protect against cyber threats. We will continue to work with our government partners to leverage digital technology to help the U.S. become more resilient as it recovers from COVID-19 and its economic impact.”
The bill includes $175 million in emergency assistance to public TV and radio stations.
“The American Rescue Plan is a historic achievement that will help millions of people," said Joshua Stager, deputy director of broadband and competition policy for New America's Open Technology Institute. "In particular, we applaud Congress for directing over $7 billion to the FCC's E-Rate program, which will help students stay connected during remote and hybrid learning. OTI has petitioned the FCC since April 2020 to expand E-Rate as classrooms moved online, and we are grateful that help is finally on the way."
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Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.