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Charlie, Lucy, Football

 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 Nov 30-Dec 4, 2020

Kevin Taglang
Taglang

A new chapter in our ongoing COVID-response drama began this week when a bipartisan, bicameral group of lawmakers unveiled a $908 billion emergency relief plan. For many vulnerable people in the U.S., the lack of affordable broadband connections continues to hinder online learning and remote work. Will Congress finally pass economic relief and target support to reduce the digital divide? 

Back in May, we looked at the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act which, in part, would connect more people with essential communications tools during the pandemic. The House went on to pass the bill, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said there was no urgency to take it up in the upper chamber since it was not something that “deals with reality.” The reality at the time: 85,000 deaths in the U.S., nearly 1.5 million COVID-19 cases, and nearly 37 million people filing for unemployment insurance. 

Among other provisions, the HEROES Act would have: 

  • Provided households with an unemployed member with a $50 benefit to put toward the monthly price of internet service. The legislation would have authorized nearly $9 billion to cover the costs of these benefits.
  • Expedited the Federal Communications Commission’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund and placed a higher priority on high-speed broadband networks,
  • Authorized $5 billion for schools and libraries to provide internet service in a technologically neutral way to students and teachers, prioritizing those without internet access at home, andA
  • Subsidized health care providers’ broadband service (up to $2 billion).

In early October, the House updated the HEROES Act, lowering the overall price tag of the bill in hopes of getting the Senate to agree to a pandemic-relief bill. At the time, the Senate was focused on filling a Supreme Court vacancy. We noted then that U.S. household income fell sharply in August, due to a drop in unemployment benefits. And worker layoffs also remained high. Still, the Senate never gave the HEROES Act a vote.

On Tuesday, a bipartisan, bicameral group of lawmakers unveiled the COVID Emergency Relief Framework, a $908 billion emergency relief plan. The proposal marks the first significant movement since the election on dealing with skyrocketing COVID-19 caseloads, surging hospitalizations, and a hobbled economy.

Included in the framework is $288 billion to fund a second round of small business support, including another payroll protection program, $180 billion in additional unemployment insurance, $160 billion in state and local aid, $82 billion for schools, $45 billion for transportation, and $10 billion for broadband. Sen Joe Manchin (D-WV), a central player in the new proposal, explicitly mentioned broadband as a priority during a news conference Tuesday, as did Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-VA).

The compromise plan is intended to serve as a stopgap measure through March.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) endorsed the plan on Wednesday, offering a significant concession in an effort to pressure Republicans to revive stalled talks on providing additional relief before the end of the year. After months of publicly insisting that another stimulus package must provide at least $2 trillion, the top Democrats called on Sen. McConnell to return to the negotiating table with a bill less than half that size as a starting point. President-elect Joseph Biden Jr., whose advisers had pushed privately in recent weeks for lawmakers to make compromises to pass an economic aid agreement as quickly as possible, also offered a blessing of sorts for the effort.

Sen McConnell panned the bipartisan framework on Tuesday, repeatedly reiterating that President Trump’s support would be needed for any coronavirus deal. On Thursday, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said he had spoken about the package with President Trump. “The president’s of the mind-set a bill would be good for the country, he would like to see it happen, but it’s got to have the right policy,” he said. The president later said,  “I think we are getting very close. I want it to happen. And I believe we are getting very close to a deal.”

Sen McConnell said Congress should include a fresh wave of coronavirus stimulus in a must-pass $1.4 trillion spending bill aimed at heading off a government shutdown on December 11. Without action, a range of government programs would be interrupted and many federal workers would be furloughed. In addition, previous federal relief measures keeping families and businesses afloat are set to expire: one granting additional weeks of benefits, the other expanding eligibility to “gig workers,” freelancers and independent contractors. These programs will end the day after Christmas, robbing an estimated 12 million people of a crucial lifeline. And the federal eviction moratorium, student-loan and mortgage forbearance programs, and emergency paid family and sick leave programs are slated to expire at year’s end, too.

McConnell’s idea is to provide “targeted relief” to the tune of $500 billion. The plan includes $332.7 billion in new loans or grants to small businesses.  It is unclear, however, if he has the support of Republican senators to pass such a measure. 

Lawmakers in the expanding bipartisan group, which picked up support on both sides of the aisle, said they would be working over the weekend to draft legislative text. They hope to attach any final coronavirus relief agreement to a full-year spending bill congressional leaders hope to pass before the government’s current funding expires at 12:01 a.m. Dec. 12.

The new, bipartisan framework severely scales back Congressional investments to connecting people via broadband. And, obviously, the classic Peanuts analogy does not sit well at a time when roughly 165,000 new COVID-19 cases are reported daily, when nearly a quarter-million people in the U.S. have lost their lives to the coronavirus, and at least 5.5 million workers are unemployed. Of course, one time, just one time, Lucy let Charlie kick the ball. Let’s hope Congress picks this time to give Americans a Christmas present. Good grief.

Quick Bits

Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)

ICYMI from Benton

Upcoming Events

Dec 7 — The Future of Speech Online 2020 (Center for Democracy & Technology)

Dec 9 — Champions of Digital Equality: 35th Anniversary Kickoff (Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council)

Dec 9 — The Invalidation of the EU-US Privacy Shield and the Future of Transatlantic Data Flows (Senate Commerce Committee)

Dec 9 — FirstNet Authority Combined Board and Board Committees Meeting

Dec 9 — December Lifeline Program Webinar (Universal Service Administrative Company)

Dec 9 — How the Digital Markets Act Could Reshape the EU’s Digital Economy (Center for Data Innovation)

Dec 10 — December 2020 Open Federal Communications Commission Meeting

Dec 10 — Policy Priorities and Possibilities for the Biden FCC (Georgetown Center for Business and Public Policy)

Dec 14 — The Courts, The Hill and The FCC – A Year in Review and Setting the Stage for 2021 (National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors)

Dec 15 — Quantum Internet Forum (FCC)

Dec 15 — Building on What Works: An Analysis of US Broadband Policy (Information Technology & Innovation Foundation)

Dec 16 — Tools for Broadband: RDOF and Other Rural Broadband Deployments (Broadband Breakfast)

Dec 17 — Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee Meeting (FCC)