Latest COVID-19 Package Would Boost Home Broadband

By Kelcee Griffis
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Law360 (May 12, 2020, 8:23 PM EDT) -- The $3 trillion coronavirus relief package unveiled by House Democrats on Tuesday promises a healthy infusion of cash to preserve and expand educational broadband access as well as beefed-up protections for ISP customers.

According to a summary of the 1,800-page bill, the Heroes Act would reserve $1.5 billion to fund take-home Wi-Fi hotspots for students, as well as an extra $4 billion to help newly furloughed or jobless residents secure at-home internet access. The bill, which is set for a House vote Friday, further allocates $1.5 billion to address immediate connectivity needs among Native American communities.

The educational broadband section echoes New York Democrat Rep. Grace Meng's new Emergency Educational Connections Act, which seeks to make sure all K-12 students have adequate home internet connectivity and devices during the coronavirus pandemic and allocated $2 billion for educational broadband. The Senate announced the introduction of a companion bill Tuesday that would set aside twice that amount.

The Heroes Act establishes an "emergency benefit" program modeled after the FCC's Lifeline program to offer between $50 and $75 a month to American households that include at least one laid-off or furloughed family member. It also directs Lifeline providers to offer unlimited minutes and data to current low-income beneficiaries of the subsidy program and releases $200 million to help states verify new Lifeline participants.

As for more general consumer protections, the bill would forbid internet service providers from dropping customers whose bills are overdue or charging late fees when the hardships are related to the pandemic. It would also prohibit data overage charges and mandate that ISP hotspots be open to the general public for free.

Consumer advocates have been urging the FCC to put in place firmer directives along these lines, and anecdotal evidence suggests that pledges to treat customers fairly during the pandemic have been inconsistently implemented.

Venturing away slightly from core pandemic issues, House Democrats shoehorned in provisions that would keep intact a public-safety spectrum channel known as the T-Band and cement a three-digit code for a national suicide hotline.

The bill also attempts to secure a long-debated provision that would allow the FCC to regulate both in- and out-of-state jail phone call rates, imposing an emergency rate cap prompted by the pandemic with the opportunity to make the lower rates permanent and revisit them every two years.

Several advocacy groups offered praise for the bill's inclusion of educational and low-income broadband funding but warned that the measures may not be enough. The Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition, for example, said the funding allocated for student devices through the FCC's E-Rate program is about $4 billion too little.

"The legislation does not provide sufficient funding for schools, libraries, and health care providers to address the school closures, health crises and economic dislocation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic," said John Windhausen, SHLB's executive director, noting his group asked for at least $5.25 billion for at-home educational broadband.

Still, the nod to incarcerated individuals and low-income families struggling to pay communications bills is a step in the right direction, said Steven Renderos, executive director of advocacy group MediaJustice.

"The stimulus package finally addresses our right to communicate, and we urge Congress to urgently pass this relief bill so millions of families can access the phone and internet services they need to navigate this pandemic effectively," he said in a statement. 

--Additional reporting by Andrew Kragie and Christopher Cole. Editing by Gemma Horowitz.

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