The House and Senate both voted late Monday on a paired-up package of a COVID-19 relief bill and an omnibus government spending bill loaded with billions of dollars for broadband, new small business loan aid for broadcasters and a provision making the theft of video streams a felony for the first time.
The House vote was 359 to 53 and the Senate vote 91 to 7.
“The Motion Picture Association and our member studios applaud Congress for passing the coronavirus relief and government funding package, which includes continued support for the film, television and streaming industry and its dedicated workforce," said Motion Picture Association President Charles Rivkin. "Our industry supports 2.5 million jobs and 93,000 small businesses in all 50 states, and we are encouraged that this legislation includes an expanded employee retention credit, a grant for movie theaters and an extension of the federal film, television, and live theatrical incentive. We are also pleased that the package includes the Protect Lawful Streaming Act, which protects creators, innovators, and consumers by ensuring that operators of commercial pirate streaming services face meaningful criminal penalties in appropriate circumstances.”
“Today, as part of the sweeping omnibus bill, we are including $7 billion to assist struggling families better afford their internet service, and to help connect tribal and rural communities and students, faculty and staff of minority colleges and universities," said House Energy & Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J. and Communications Subcommittee Chairman Mike Doyle (D-Pa.). "We are also making our broadband equipment more secure and improving telehealth. This legislation will provide discounts to struggling families of $50 per month for their internet service so that they do not fall victim to the digital divide and for families on Tribal lands it would be up to $75."
"This package is not perfect, but there are certainly several bipartisan wins that should be celebrated," said House E&C Ranking Member Greg Walden (R-Ore.) and the retiring Walden's successor in that post Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.). They said that includes "expanding access to broadband services across U.S. communities" and "assisting smaller, rural providers to rip and replace Huawei equipment and other suspect gear from our networks."
The funding includes $98 million to implement the Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability (DATA) Act, bipartisan legislation enacted in 2020 to create a comprehensive national broadband map. The legislation also includes $3.2 billion for an Emergency Broadband Connectivity Fund, $300 million for broadband infrastructure in rural America, and $250 million for the FCC’s COVID-19 Telehealth Program.
“Mapping is the sleeper issue of today’s connectivity conversation, and it is great news that Congress made good on its commitment to fund the Broadband DATA Act," said USTelecom President Jonathan Spalter. "Modernizing our national broadband maps to tell us precisely who has (and who still lacks) 21st century broadband will have an outsized impact on helping to solve the access challenges still facing too many in our country.
“The American people are collectively relying on our communications infrastructure more than ever, and the indispensability of broadband to families, businesses, doctors and educators has never been clearer. Congress recognized this and made some very smart and targeted investments to increase broadband access and affordability, to extend network infrastructure in underserved communities, and bolster telehealth. We’ve got more work to do as a nation, but these are bold steps that will yield significant returns and ultimately advance our shared national goal of universal connectivity.”
The legislative double-bill also included $475 million for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting for 2023--CPB is forward funded to try to de-politicize the process. That figure was actually an increase of $10 million.
"America's Public Television Stations are grateful for this increase in funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which continues the process of restoring the nearly $100 million in purchasing power public broadcasting has lost in a decade of frozen funding," said Patrick Butler, president and CEO of America's Public Television Stations, in a statement.
“Importantly, this legislation also provides level funding of $20 million in FY 2021 for station interconnection, the backbone of the public broadcasting system, supporting nationwide emergency alerting, providing local stations with national programming, connecting stations with each other, and creating operational efficiencies.
“And it provides $29.5 million, an increase of $500,000 in FY 2021 for Ready To Learn, a competitive grant program at the Department of Education that supports public television’s essential work -- on-air, online and on-the-ground -- in early childhood education, to help build science, math and literacy skills of children between the ages of two and eight."
“Low-income Americans, Tribal communities, and communities of color have borne those burdens disproportionately. That’s why I am pleased that this legislation prioritizes connecting these households," said FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Stakrs. "In recent years, many policymakers have focused on rural access as the key to curbing the digital divide. But we know that tens of millions of Americans do not have broadband simply because they cannot afford it. No family should have to decide between keeping the lights on or getting the household connected. I have long called on the FCC to focus on affordability, and I am committed to ensuring that this emergency broadband benefit quickly reaches the families that need it most.
“The bill also takes important steps towards expanding critical broadband access across Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), other Minority Serving Institutions, and their surrounding communities."
“By providing $3.2 billion in direct support for broadband connectivity for low-income families, as well new stimulus checks and additional unemployment assistance, Congress will help Americans stay connected for the months ahead to the reliable, robust broadband connectivity that ACA Connects members and others provide," said ACA Connects President Matt Polka.
“This new funding can make a significant contribution to the ongoing efforts of our members since the start of the emergency to connect, and keep connected, everyone in their communities. But it is critical that the FCC implements the law by adopting rules that facilitate participation by these smaller broadband providers, who today provide service to some 10 million households in more rural areas, many of which have been severely impacted by the COVID emergency.
Connect America Now called the package and its $7 billion for broadband, including to fund better maps, a down payment on bridging the digital divide.
“Congress has rightfully recognized the broadband gap is as an urgent challenge made more severe by the impact of the pandemic and demonstrated a bipartisan commitment to action," said CAN Executive Director Richard Cullen.
“We welcome this long-overdue legislation," said Joshua Stager, senior counsel for New America's Open Technology Institute. "In particular, the bill’s emergency broadband benefit is a huge step forward. The cost of broadband is far too high, and it’s widening the digital divide at a time when poverty rates are peaking and much of daily life has shifted to the internet. At long last, it appears help is finally on the way to the millions of people who are suffering through the pandemic without connectivity."
“We’re grateful that Congress has come together and passed this much needed relief package which will help many who have been impacted by this pandemic, including the songwriters and composers who have been hit particularly hard," said BMI President Mike O'Neill. "This bill provides important relief for the self-employed, helps creators protect and enforce their rights, and importantly, provides funding for the live music venues which are so important to our songwriters’ livelihoods. We know there are still difficult months ahead, and BMI will continue working on behalf of our community, including advocating for any additional assistance needed to recover from the devastation caused by this pandemic.”
Among the other communications-related bills that made it into the massive package were:
The Don’t Break Up the T-Band Act of 2020, which repealed the congressional mandate that the FCC free up and auction public safety spectrum in the 470 to 512 MHz band (T-band). The bill also cdirects the FCC to end the diversion of 911 fees to other purposes.
The mouthful legislation--Advancing Critical Connectivity Expands Service, Small Business Resources, Opportunities, Access, and Data Based on Assessed Need and Demand (ACCESS BROADBAND) Act, which creates the Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), the White House's chief communications policy advisor. The office's purview includes "broadband access, adoption, and deployment," including outreach to promote all those. It also "establishes coordination requirements between agencies that offer broadband deployment funding programs to ensure Federal funds are spent efficiently and effectively."
The Broadband Interagency Coordination Act, which requires the FCC,NTIA, and the Department of Agriculture to coordinate federal funds broadband subsidy programs to prevent duplicative support and protect taxpayer dollars,
The Beat CHINA for 5G Act of 2020, which requires the President to "withdraw or modify federal spectrum assignments in the 3450 to 3550 megahertz band" and says the FCC has to revise its rules on the non-Federal portion of that band to allow for flexible-use services, and to "begin a system of competitive bidding for some or all of the band" by December 31, 2021.
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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.