Advocates Say COVID-19 Funds Don't Meet Broadband Needs

Law360 (March 26, 2020, 4:46 PM EDT) -- The coronavirus rescue package passed by the Senate late Wednesday will pump $2 trillion into the ailing U.S. economy and includes funds to boost telemedicine and distance learning, but some public advocates are criticizing the bill for paying too little attention to gaping internet connection needs.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act allocates $200 million to the Federal Communications Commission to provide the "telecommunications services, information services, and devices necessary" to support telehealth services in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The bill also sets aside $25 million specifically for "telemedicine and distance learning services in rural areas," as well as $100 million for general broadband access in areas that lack 10/1 Mbps service, which is slower than the FCC's current baseline speed of 25/3 Mbps. These funds would be disbursed through the U.S. Department of Agriculture

The CARES Act also would offer "grants to states, territories and tribes to expand digital network access, purchase internet accessible devices, and provide technical support services" under a $50 million allocation for library services.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai praised the Senate bill's focus on the need for connected health care infrastructure and said his agency is getting ready to implement the forthcoming funding as soon as possible.

"The CARES Act would support this critical shift in health care delivery by giving the FCC the money and authority to quickly fund telehealth programs across the country," Pai said in a statement on Thursday. "The FCC has already begun preparing for this bill to become law, and I hope that the U.S. House of Representatives will quickly send this legislation to the president's desk."

However, broadband advocates said the legislation falls woefully short of addressing the huge demand for connectivity across the country as Americans work, learn and are entertained online.

Jenna Leventoff, senior policy counsel at Public Knowledge, said the funds provided by the Senate bill are a Band-Aid for much larger connectivity problems that persist across the country.

"During this pandemic, it is Congress' responsibility to protect Americans by giving them what they need to stay home and stay safe," Leventoff said in a statement on Wednesday. "Today's legislation failed to do that by omitting broadband subsidies for those who need them most and devoting only a pittance to deploy broadband where there is none."

While the state grant program shows some promise, Leventoff said wireless equipment shortages might prove to be an obstacle in actually getting more students online.

Further, advocacy group Free Press criticized the package for funding only the most basic internet connections while paying no attention to the cost barriers that prevent many low-income consumers from buying broadband even when it's available in their areas.

"Today's bill spares just $100 million in grants for rural broadband construction, for networks offering speeds that people would have considered slow a decade ago," said Free Press general counsel Matt Wood. "Rural buildout alone will not close the digital divide, as millions of people in urban and rural areas alike cannot afford to connect right now."

--Additional reporting by Stephen Cooper and Andrew Kragie. Editing by Nicole Bleier.

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