The $900 billon COVID-19 relief and omnibus spending measure Congress passed yesterday after months of negotiations includes billions of dollars in funding to promote greater broadband connectivity throughout the nation. Perhaps the most important provision for rural telephone and electric internet providers will be a total of $95 million for the FCC to fulfill the requirements of the Broadband DATA Act, which Congress passed in early 2020.
The money will go toward applying new technologies and gathering extremely precise data determining where broadband service exists, where it does not exist, and which rural structures potentially will require broadband connections. Important federal broadband funding initiatives are relying on new data to replace the current FCC Form 477 survey process.
“This legislation gives the FCC the funding we need to implement our Digital Opportunity Data Collection; this is a critical step toward the FCC being able to implement both Phase II of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund [RDOF] as well as the 5G Fund for rural America that the Commission adopted earlier this year, which together will offer over $20 billion to support high-speed broadband in rural America,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement after passage.
The bill is now on its way to President Trump who may sign it within a few days, although he is reportedly seeking changes to part of the bill’s COVID relief sections.
It includes several other rural broadband provisions, among them:
- A $3.2 billion allocation would fund an “Emergency Broadband Connectivity Fund” to provide direct aid for consumers to pay for broadband service in COVID-stricken areas.
- $2 billion will fund a program to “rip-and-replace” broadband infrastructure, especially equipment from China deemed to be potential national security threats.
- National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) would receive $300 million for a pilot program to encourage public/private broadband projects.
- NTIA also would receive $1 billion for a tribal broadband grant program.
- The U.S. Department of Agriculture would receive $670 million to replenish existing broadband grant and loan programs.
“In particular, we are pleased to see funding for broadband mapping efforts, which will help us better identify where service is and is not needed, as well as support for funds that will help smaller providers replace equipment as needed to address communications supply chain security,” NTCA CEO Shirley Bloomfield said in a blog post yesterday. “Feels like an early holiday present for those who have been waiting for connectivity. That is merry news indeed.”
NRECA CEO Jim Matheson acknowledged the importance of the bill’s “investments in the USDA ReConnect program, the Community Connect broadband program, funding for broadband mapping, tribal broadband infrastructure, FCC telehealth, and emergency funds for low-income families to access broadband.” But at the same time expressed “disappointment with other noncommunications-related provisions affecting electric co-ops.
“Mapping is the sleeper issue of today’s connectivity conversation, and it is great news that Congress made good on its commitment to fund the Broadband DATA Act,” said USTelecom President and CEO Jonathan Spalter in a statement. “Modernizing our national broadband maps to tell us precisely who has [and who still lacks] 21st century broadband will have an outsized impact on helping to solve the access challenges still facing too many in our country.”
Update, Dec. 28: According to published reports, President Trump signed the COVID relief and spending bill yesterday (Dec. 27). “I am signing this bill to restore unemployment benefits, stop evictions, provide rental assistance, add money for PPP, return our airline workers back to work, add substantially more money for vaccine distribution, and much more,” Trump said in a statement. He urged Congress to review other provisions of the bill and rescind excessive spending, increase relief payments to Americans from $600 to $2,000 and reform or repeal Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.