Lawmakers Seek $2B Broadband Aid As Part Of COVID Funds

By Lauren Berg
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Law360 (April 7, 2020, 5:19 PM EDT) -- A bipartisan group of lawmakers urged congressional leadership to dedicate funding in any future emergency aid legislation to keep students and low-income families online during the deadly coronavirus pandemic, citing recently introduced bills seeking $2 billion for this purpose.

In a Monday letter to House and Senate leaders, a group of 25 lawmakers said the novel coronavirus is taking a financial toll on students and low-income families who no longer have access to schools, libraries and other sources for an internet connection. As a result, many small broadband providers have committed to keeping internet services active and providing upgrades to make sure those in need can stay connected, the lawmakers said.

But those providers — which support more than 77,000 jobs and $10 billion in economic activity in the U.S. — might not be able to sustain those services if customers can't pay for a prolonged period of time, which would jeopardize broadband access for customers all over the country, according to the letter.

"Without action from Congress, small providers may be unable to continue to help ensure that the communities they serve can access distance learning and telehealth services," the lawmakers said.

Although the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act that was signed at the end of March included some funding for "telemedicine and distance learning services in rural areas" as well as state grants to support web-connected devices, the lawmakers said it didn't provide funding to help small broadband providers keep low-income customers connected.

Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., and Reps. Peter Welch, D-Vt., and Roger Marshall, R-Kan. — who penned Monday's letter alongside 21 of their colleagues — recently introduced two versions of the Keeping Critical Connections Act to their respective legislative bodies, which would appropriate $2 billion for a fund at the Federal Communications Commission for broadband providers with fewer than 250,000 customers.

Those providers could be compensated for providing free or discounted broadband services or upgrades during the coronavirus crisis for low-income families who can't afford to pay their bills or to provide distance learning capabilities for students.

A coalition of Democratic senators last week also expressed disappointment that the CARES Act failed to include direct funding for distance learning, telling congressional leadership that the next bill must include $2 billion for an FCC program focused on schools and libraries.

The call for small broadband company support comes on the heels of House Democrats' announcement last week of a fourth-phase coronavirus rescue package, which proposes $86 billion for broadband infrastructure and $12 billion to support next-generation 911 services. The allocations follow the contours of a $760 billion infrastructure plan that House leaders first rolled out in January.

--Additional reporting by Stephen Cooper, Kelcee Griffis and Linda Chiem. Editing by Alanna Weissman.

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