COVID-19 Bill Passes Senate With $17 Billion Broadband Investment

Capitol Hill
(Image credit: Architect of the Capitol)

The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan COVID-19 aid bill that passed the Senate Saturday (March 6) will allocate another $17 billion-plus for broadband.

Sen. Mark Warner pointed out Saturday that that was the largest-single federal investment in broadband infrastructure and affordability.

Also Read: GOP Bill Would Apply C-Band Proceeds to Digital Divide

The bill, HR 1319, passed 50 to 49 along party lines and must now be re-voted in the House due to some tweaks to the House-passed version.

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.

Also Read: ISPs Prepare for Broadband Billions

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.

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."

Also Read: FCC Casts Wide Net for EBB Subsidy Players

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.

“I’m especially proud that I was able to work with President Biden and my colleagues to add funding to expand access to high-speed internet, which is a necessity, not a luxury, during COVID-19," said Sen. Warner. 

“Throughout this pandemic, we have asked our students to shoulder an enormous burden and continue their education from home,” said Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.) of the $7 billion E-rate funding. “The funding included in this relief package for K-12 distance learning will finally provide all our children with the technology and tools to set them up for success and ensure they can continue their studies from home. This funding will help ensure that the ‘homework gap’ does not grow into a damaging learning and opportunity gap for our children, particularly those who live in communities of color, low-income households, and rural areas.”

John Eggerton

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.