House, Senate Bullish On Allocating Fresh Broadband Funds

By Kelcee Griffis
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Law360 (February 10, 2021, 6:03 PM EST) -- Key members of both the House and Senate say they're optimistic that Congress will include substantial funding for broadband adoption and expansion as part of the Hill's next pair of big projects.

During speeches Tuesday and Wednesday hosted by trade group Incompas, Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., and Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., indicated that passing a new coronavirus relief package will be the first priority, followed by a wide-ranging economic and infrastructure bill.

Clyburn, who serves as majority whip, said Wednesday he will reintroduce his Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act, previously floated this summer, which would allocate $100 billion to broadband expansion while requiring providers to build in low-cost plans and report pricing data to the Federal Communications Commission.

"We are going to be introducing that bill in the House, hopefully in the next couple weeks. I am talking to everyone I need to talk to, including the White House, and trying to get it to be an integral part of any infrastructure bill," Clyburn said.

He confirmed that Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn, will introduce an identical bill in the Senate, and added that he's looking forward to working with Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over telecom bills, to get the legislation passed in both chambers.

In the nearer term, the House is fleshing out details of the forthcoming COVID-19 relief bill, which is expected to include $7.6 billion to support students, teachers and schools as largely online learning continues. The House Energy and Commerce Committee is set to begin marking up aspects of the relief bill Thursday.

The educational broadband component is based on the Emergency Educational Connections Act, sponsored by Sens. Ed Markey, D-Mass., Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., Michael Bennet, D-Colo., Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., and Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y.

The bill's inclusion in the relief package "reflects what we all know: that we cannot afford to wait another day to connect online our nation's most vulnerable children to their teachers and classmates and to ensure the 'homework gap' does not continue to grow into a damaging learning and opportunity gap as the pandemic continues," the lawmakers said in a joint statement Wednesday.

For the entirety of the pandemic, the FCC has been prevented from extending subsidies from its educational subsidy fund known as E-Rate to pay for students' at-home internet services. The Democratic-led FCC is now collecting comments on broadening the fund to include disconnected households with school children, and there's a chance Congress will somehow give nod to the issue as well.

"We are going to hopefully address E-Rate, but we're talking about immediate problems with COVID," said Pallone, who chairs the committee, on Tuesday.

He emphasized that the emergency relief bill will only tackle short-term issues, and he aims to address bigger-picture connectivity needs in the infrastructure bill this summer. Pallone said he plans to push the Moving Forward Act as a major component of this package, a sprawling House plan that included $100 billion to boost broadband internet access in underserved or rural areas that was not ultimately picked up in the Senate.

"We expect [the relief package] will be followed in maybe April or May by what I would call an economic stimulus package. This is investment in infrastructure and other things that will create jobs. That's where we hope this Moving Forward Act will be incorporated, and maybe even expanded beyond that," Pallone said.

Moran emphasized Wednesday that both appropriations and oversight are important to advance broadband funding and expansion. As these bills move forward, he said, lawmakers must also devote energy to ensuring that the money dedicated to FCC subsidy programs and broadband build-out is properly spent.

"I'll spend a lot of time on oversight of the Universal Service Fund, on the [Rural Digital Opportunity Fund] oversight," he said of the FCC's umbrella subsidy fund and a recent auction that distributed $9.2 billion to unserved areas. "Again, things that we're doing are important but need to be done correctly."

--Additional reporting by Linda Chiem. Editing by Stephen Berg.

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