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New COVID-19 Aid Bill Has Billions for Broadband

House Democrats have introduced their version of COVID-19 aid legislation following up on the CARES Act. The new bill would fund distance learning, a big priority in the study-at-home COVID-19 reality, as well as subsidize continued broadband service and prohibit ISPs from cutting off service to anyone for nonpayment. 

That last is something they have been promising not to due per the FCC's voluntgary connectivity pledge. 

It would also reverse Congress' mandate to the FCC to auction T-band spectrum now in the hands of first respondents, a reversal Republican FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has also supported. 

The Heroes (Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions) Act is an omnibus emergency appropriation. 

It includes $1.5 billion for distance learning, though that is less than the $2 billion proposed in one House distance learning bill and the $4 billion proposed in a Senate version. 

According to the House Energy & Commerce Commitee, the bill: 

1. "Provides $1.5 billion through the E-Rate Program immediately for schools and libraries to purchase hotspots, connected devices, connectivity and related equipment to facilitate distance learning during the emergency. 

2. "Provides $4 billion to connect struggling families by providing up to $50 a month for those low-income families already eligible for the Lifeline Program— and for those that have been laid off or furloughed—to pay their internet service bills during the emergency. 

3. "Prohibits telephone and broadband service providers from stopping service to consumers unable to pay during the duration of the emergency. 

4. "Helps Americans better access mental health crisis counseling by designating 9-8-8 as the nationwide suicide prevention and mental health crisis hotline so that Americans that are isolated and feeling hopeless can get help. 

5. "Drastically reduces the rates that incarcerated persons pay to connect with family and friends. 

6. "Ensures our frontline first responders can keep using the airwaves they rely on to communicate, specifically the T-Band, so their radios and communications systems continue to work." 

Related: COVID-19 Virus Hits Industry

There was some immediate applause for the draft, but the lack of any Republicans on the bill was not a hopeful sign, confirmed by the cold water thrown on the effort from one high-profile Republican.

“Don’t be fooled by the name of this massive package. Heroes are not partisans, but this legislation is," said House Energy & Commerce Committee ranking member Greg Walden (R-Ore.). "Written behind closed doors in the Speaker’s Office, House Democrats confess this legislation has no chance of becoming law, yet they wasted time writing an 1,815 page spending manifesto rather than working with us to craft real solutions. We’ve all been inspired by Americans from every walk of life stepping up and working together to get through this terrible time. Congress should do the same."

"WISPA appreciates the scope of the HEROES Act, especially as it pertains to keeping families hit hardest by the pandemic online, connected and safe," said Christina Mason, VP of government affairs for the association, which represents wireless internet service providers. "We signed the FCC’s Keep Americans Connected pledge, as well as its extension, and the support noted in the Act will go far to ensure all Americans remain connected through the duration of the pandemic." 

“With schools closed and millions out of work, Congress must use its powers to keep Americans connected," said bill backers Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Committee and Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), chairman of the Communications Joshua Stager, senior counsel at New America’s Open Technology Institute. "This bill keeps all of our kids safe and digitally connected, providing $1.5 billion immediately for online distance learning,” Pallone and Doyle said. “It also provides much-needed support to struggling families, those who are low-income or have someone in the family who has been furloughed or laid off, by providing them a monthly credit of up to $50 on their internet service bills." 

“Closing the digital divide must be a core element of the federal government’s COVID-19 response, and the Heroes Act is a vital first step," said Joshua Stager, senior counsel at New America’s Open Technology Institute. "This legislation provides the connectivity stimulus that we’ve needed for months. We look forward to working with Congress on this critically important effort.”