Saturday, December 26, 2020

A Primer: The COVID Relief Bill's Broadband Funding Provisions

The 900 billion COVID relief and government funding bill passed by the House and Senate and now signed by President Trump includes nearly $7 billion for broadband-related initiatives. On the whole, the broadband funding provisions will promote more ubiquitous deployment of secure high-speed broadband services, especially to geographic areas and to individuals where access currently lags.

Areas of focus include an emergency discount on broadband Internet access service for low-income and economically impacted households, funding to "rip and replace" insecure communications network equipment, broadband deployment grants for Tribal lands and unserved areas, additional money for telehealth, and much-needed funds for updated broadband coverage maps, a topic of recent focus by the Free State Foundation.

Here's a recap of the broadband provisions.

In order to limit the allocation of scarce government resources to those areas in fact unserved, accurate broadband coverage maps are essential. Congress and the FCC are in agreement that currently available maps are not up to the task, and both have taken steps to address this issue, the former through passage of the Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability (DATA) Act, the latter through the establishment of the Digital Opportunity Data Collection (DODC).

The DODC will utilize "granular and detailed coverage data" from Internet service providers (ISPs), along with input from government entities and the general public, to produce maps far more accurate than those that rely upon census-block-based information submitted via FCC Form 477.

However, As Free State Foundation President Randolph May and I noted in "Congress Should Fund Needed Broadband Maps This Session," a recent Perspectives from FSF Scholars, the money required to fund that effort until now had not been appropriated. This legislation provides the FCC with the full amount requested by Chairman Ajit Pai: $65 million.

The relief package also includes $3.2 billion to keep Americans connected during the COVID-19 pandemic. Eligible households will receive a monthly emergency broadband benefit in the form of a $50 discount on high-speed Internet access service. Eligibility generally is limited to low-income households and those who have endured lay-offs or furloughs.

As the administering entity, the FCC has sixty days to adopt rules implementing the program, which will continue for six months after the Secretary of Health and Human Services has declared an end to the public health emergency. The Commission will reimburse participating ISPs directly for the amount of the monthly discount and up to $100 for a connected device (tablet, laptop, or desktop computer) that they provide. A provider need not be designated as an Eligible Telecommunications Carrier in order to participate.

In addition, the legislation tasks NTIA with disbursing a total of $1.3 billion for broadband grant programs, $1 billion targeting Tribal lands and $300 million for unserved (including rural) areas. Recipients of Tribal Broadband Connectivity Grants may use those funds to deploy fixed broadband infrastructure in unserved areas or, during the pandemic, for subsidized broadband service, distance learning, or telehealth programs.

The remaining $300 million will be made available in the form of Broadband Infrastructure Deployment Grants, which will target unserved areas for network infrastructure construction and prioritize, among other things, projects that target smaller communities (that is, counties, cities, or towns with less than 50,000 inhabitants).

NTIA also will become home to a new Office of Minority Broadband Initiatives that will perform a number of responsibilities, most significantly the administration of a $285 million pilot program focusing primarily on the broadband needs of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and their surrounding communities.

Congress addressed another funding need, relating to potential security vulnerabilities in telecommunications equipment manufactured by Chinese companies Huawei and ZTE currently deployed in U.S. networks, by allocating up to $1.9 billion to "rip and replace" those devices with trusted alternatives. In March 2020, lawmakers passed the Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Act of 2019, which banned recipients of Universal Service Fund support from purchasing at-risk equipment and services, mandated that they remove such devices from their networks, and directed the FCC to establish a program to reimburse primarily smaller providers (that is, those with fewer than 2 million customers) for replacement equipment.

In November, the Commission adopted rules and procedures to implement that legislation, but Congress had not yet appropriated the money required. The relief package funds this effort and expands the pool of recipient providers to those with up to 10 million customers – though it prioritizes those with less than 2 million customers.

In addition, the relief package provides the FCC with just under $250 million in additional funding for its COVID-19 Telehealth Program established earlier this year by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

Finally, the bill incorporates (1) the December 31, 2021, deadline for the FCC to commence an auction of the 3.45-3.55 GHz band established by the Beat CHINA for 5G Act, and (2) the repeal of the mandate to auction the T-Band – spectrum that first responders depend upon for mission-critical communications in a number of large cities – set forth in the Don't Break Up the T-Band Act of 2020.

In a statement, FCC Chairman Pai "applaud[ed] Congress for including ... a number of provisions that advance critical national priorities in communications policy" and "salute[d] Congressional leaders for working together in a bipartisan manner to reach agreement on this consequential legislation that will help protect our national security, close the digital divide, advance telehealth, and promote American leadership in 5G."