COVID Bill Includes Broadcaster Loans, Broadband Funds

By Kelcee Griffis
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Law360 (December 21, 2020, 4:38 PM EST) -- The $900 billion coronavirus rescue package that Congress and the White House agreed to on Sunday will allow broadcasters to access small-business loans through the Paycheck Protection Program and carve out $7 billion for broadband funding.

According to a summary of the bill from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office, the aid package sets aside $284 billion in forgivable loans for small businesses and extends eligibility in the program to "nonprofits and local newspapers, TV and radio broadcasters."

Three sources confirmed to Law360 that language in the bill includes provisions for TV and radio broadcasters.

One of the sources said the funding will allow broadcasters to count the number of people they employ at the local level to qualify for the funding, much like restaurants have done when taking advantage of the first coronavirus rescue package, the CARES Act.

Another source said the broadcaster funding language is based on a bill floated by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., this summer.

Under the Local News and Emergency Information Act of 2020 — also sponsored by Sens. John Boozman, R-Ark., Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Joni Ernst, R-Ind., and Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. — stations that apply for the loan must not gross more than $41.5 million and must use the proceeds to support the continued provision of local news, information, content or emergency information.

A recipient "may not remit any portion of a paycheck protection loan to any entity other than the individual physical location" of the intended recipient, according to a bill summary.

Although broadcasters have pushed for such protections to apply to stations since the spring, advocacy group the American Television Alliance previously said their inclusion in the small-business loan program would be inappropriate.

"These conglomerates are obviously not 'small businesses,' nor are they simply collections of stations operating independently," an ATVA spokesperson said in an April statement. "In reality, corporate owners do — and by law must — control every material aspect of the stations they own and operate."

The National Association of Broadcasters said in a Monday statement that their members can qualify for the loans as long as they employ up to 500 people per station, and station groups may not receive more than a total of $10 million.

"These provisions, in addition to the bill's second round of PPP funding for which many stations will also be eligible, help local broadcasters maintain their operations during this difficult time and continue to provide news and information critical to local communities as vaccine distribution commences across the country," said NAB President Gordon Smith.

Many of the provisions in Sunday's agreement were based on the Emergency Coronavirus Relief Act of 2020, a bipartisan proposal unveiled Dec. 14 by Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., Susan Collins, R-Maine, and other moderate legislators. It includes funding for distribution of the coronavirus vaccines, virus testing and health care workers.

Pelosi's office said the bill also includes $7 billion "to increase access to broadband, including a new Emergency Broadband Benefit to help millions of students, families and unemployed workers afford the broadband they need during the pandemic." This includes monthly subsidies of between $50 and $75 to help low-income families afford at-home broadband access.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said Monday that he's pleased the coronavirus relief and omnibus spending package will fund FCC priorities including broadband mapping and a program to replace Chinese network equipment installed in U.S. networks, as well as broadband access in rural and low-income areas. 

"I salute 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," he said in a statement. "The FCC will act quickly to implement the bill's important provisions once it is adopted and signed into law."  

Chip Pickering, CEO of internet trade group Incompas, said the broadband funding is welcome but won't completely shore up woefully limited U.S. networks. 

"Broadband funding in the stimulus package is an important Band-Aid that is helping keep Americans connected. But the pandemic makes clear that our networks require surgery," he said in a Monday statement. "Millions of families lack coverage, while the majority of Americans are forced to live with older networks that are too slow, over-congested and expensive where there is a lack of competition."

--Additional reporting by Stephen Cooper and Christopher Cole. Editing by Philip Shea.

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