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Do We Still Have Broadband HEROES?

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 You’re reading the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society’s Weekly Digest, a recap of the biggest (or most overlooked) broadband stories of the week. The digest is delivered via e-mail each Friday.

Round-Up for the Week of September 28-October 2, 2020

Kevin Taglang
Taglang

This week, House Democrats unveiled an updated version of the HEROES Act, a pandemic-relief bill the House passed in May, but was never considered by the U.S. Senate. The original Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act included a number of provisions aimed at getting and keeping more people in the U.S. connected and safe during the pandemic. The updated legislation would reduce the price tag of economic relief to $2.2 trillion, compared with the $3.5 trillion bill the House passed in May. Does that mean less support for broadband connections? 

See Broadband HEROES, our summary of telecommunications provisions in the original bill

I. HEROES II Includes the Emergency Benefit for Broadband Service

Like the original bill, the updated HEROES Act would create the Emergency Benefit for Broadband Service. This provision entitles households in which a member has been laid off or furloughed, among other households that will be eligible, to get a $50 benefit (or a $75 benefit on tribal lands) to put toward the monthly price of internet service during the COVID-19 public health emergency. Broadband internet access service providers would be required to provide eligible households service at a price reduced by an amount up to the emergency benefit, and those providers can seek a reimbursement from the Federal Communications Commission for such amount. The legislation would create the Emergency Broadband Connectivity Fund with $3 billion to provide the emergency benefit.

The legislation would also enhance the FCC’s Lifeline program which subsidizes phone and internet services for qualified low-income people. The new bill would require Lifeline providers to make unlimited minutes and unlimited data available to those that rely on the Lifeline program to stay connected to phone or internet service and would provide additional support to offset the increase of services, with a minimum subsidy increase to not less than $25 per month (the current subsidy is $9.25/month).(1)

II. Continued Connectivity

The new bill prohibits broadband and telephone providers from terminating service due to a customer’s inability to pay their bill because of financial hardships caused by the COVID-19 pandemic or imposing late fees incurred because of hardships caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The legislation also prohibits broadband providers from employing data caps or charging customers from going over data caps and requires them to open Wi-Fi hotspots to the public at no cost during the COVID-19 public health emergency.

Jails and prisons have become epicenters for the spread of COVID-19 with incarcerated persons concentrated in small, confined spaces. To prevent the spread of the virus, many jails and prisons across the country suspended public visitation, leaving confinement facility communications services as the only way that incarcerated persons can stay in touch with their families. But prisons and jails are known to have unjust and unreasonable charges for communications services. The updated HEROES Act would give the FCC the authority to set rates in connection with voice calls and video calls in prisons and jails both for calls within a state and calls between states and set a mandatory, immediate, interim cap on all rates charged in connection with voice calls and video calls made to or from prisons or jails of .04 cents per-minute for debit calls and .05 cents per-minute for collect calls. And the bill requires the FCC to adopt rules to replace the mandatory interim caps within 18 months of passage and to review those rates every two years. Prisons or jails would be prohibited from charging site commissions for communications services.  

III. More Support for Telehealth Services

HEROES II would provide $200 million to the FCC “to support efforts of health care providers to address coronavirus by providing telecommunications services, information services, and devices necessary to enable the provision of telehealth services during an emergency.” The FCC’s COVID-19 Telehealth Program — created by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act — provides immediate support to eligible health care providers responding to the COVID-19 pandemic by fully funding their telecommunications services, information services, and devices necessary to provide critical connected care services. The program approved a final set of grants back in early July.

HEROES II also addresses health care needs related to coronavirus for Native Americans, including:

  • $500 million to provide health care, including telehealth services to Native Americans, and to purchase medical supplies and personal protective equipment; and
  • $140 million to expand broadband infrastructure and information technology for telehealth and electronic health records system purposes.

IV. Supporting Distance Education

The updated HEROES Act would: 

  • authorize a temporary disbursement for schools and libraries to provide internet service in a technologically neutral way to students and teachers, prioritizing those without internet access at home;
  • authorize funding to be used for internet service and providing connected devices, like laptops and tablets, Wi-Fi hotspots, modems, and routers, to students and teachers to help keep them in the digital classroom during the COVID-19 pandemic; and
  • set aside 5 percent of this funding to help serve schools and libraries that serve people living on tribal lands.

The legislation makes $12 billion available until September 30, 2022 for these purposes and directs the FCC to administer the funding through it’s E-rate program.

In addition to the E-rate funding, the legislation would also make $27 billion available for public postsecondary education to support relief including (but not limited to):

  • training and professional development for college and university faculty and staff to use technology and services related to distance education; and
  • emergency financial aid to postsecondary students for housing, food, technology, health care, and child care.

HEROES II would make $11.9 billion available to Higher Education to help alleviate burdens associated with the coronavirus for both colleges and students, including $1.4 billion for other institutions of higher education with unmet need related to coronavirus, including institutions of higher education that offer programs exclusively through distance education. 

Finally, the Department of Veterans Affairs would receive $45 million to support modernization of the education claims processing system, allowing the department to effectively process GI Bill claims, despite the shift to online college classes, including the delivery of students’ payments to schools in a timely manner to avoid interruption in services.

V. Figuring Out Where Broadband Has Been Deployed

The updated HEROES Act would provide $24 million to the FCC to implement the Broadband DATA Act, which requires the FCC to dramatically reform the nation’s problematic broadband deployment maps. The FCC must create, and update every six months, a common dataset of all locations in the U.S. where fixed broadband internet access service can be installed. As the FCC sets out on this task, it is to prioritize rural and insular areas. By March 2021, the Government Accountability Office will conduct a review of the sources the FCC used to create the dataset. 

With all this data, the FCC is to create a map depicting: 1) the extent of the availability of broadband internet access service in the U.S., without regard to whether that service is fixed broadband internet access service or mobile broadband internet access service, which shall be based on data collected from all providers; and 2) the areas of the U.S. that remain unserved by providers.

These maps are to be used to determine where terrestrial fixed, fixed wireless, mobile, and satellite broadband internet access service is and is not available — and to inform the awarding of new funding for the deployment of broadband internet access service (like the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund). The FCC must update the maps biannually and make sure the Department of Agriculture and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration can consult them when considering broadband infrastructure funding. 

VI. House HEROES But No Senate Action

By a slim margin (214 to 207), the House passed the updated HEROES Act on October 1. But pundits believe there’s little chance the legislation becomes law as negotiations with the Trump administration failed to yield a bipartisan agreement. Republicans panned the bill as too large and at least 18 moderate Democrats from conservative-leaning districts objected to the lack of Republican support, arguing that a vote should have waited until a bipartisan agreement was struck with the administration. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the passage does not signal the end of negotiations, that “it just says” that “this is how we came down” from the package approved in May. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who has been largely absent from the talks, did not appear optimistic about the prospects for a deal.

As the election nears, skepticism has grown on Capitol Hill that an agreement is possible at this stage. Time to cut a deal is running out: The House is slated to leave for a monthlong recess at the end of this week. And the Senate seems focused on filling a Supreme Court vacancy and planning to recess much of October.

The impending election and Supreme Court fight, however, do not change the needs of many people in America. Government data showed U.S. household income fell sharply in August, due to a drop in unemployment benefits. Worker layoffs also remained high. We obviously need some heroes to deliver relief and help keep us all connected.

Quick Bits

Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)

ICYMI from Benton

Upcoming Events

Oct 5 Broadband 2020: Connected We Stand (Blandin Foundation)

Oct 5 Disconnected: How Corporate Giants Are Failing to Provide Broadband and Good Jobs (Congressional Progressive Caucus Center)

Oct 5-6 14th Annual Global Antitrust Enforcement Symposium (Georgetown Law)

Oct 6 Communication Service Providers Post COVID-19 Strategy (Telecommunications Industry Association)

Oct 7 “Access to Capital” Partnership Call (FCC)

Oct 8 10th Anniversary of the Communications and Video Accessibility Act (FCC)

Oct 9 Successful Strategies for Obtaining and Deploying Wireless Broadband (Schools Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition)

Oct 14 Disability Advisory Committee (FCC)


Notes

  1. The bill also authorizes funding to help states participate in the National Lifeline Eligibility Verifier, a federal mechanism aimed at streamlining the process to check on a household’s eligibility for the subsidy while also weeding out any waste, fraud, and abuse in the Lifeline program.

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy – rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity – has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.