TR Daily Groups, Petitioners Urge Broadband Provisions in COVID-19 Bill
Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Groups, Petitioners Urge Broadband Provisions in COVID-19 Bill

More than 200 public interest, government, industry, civil rights, rural advocacy, and academic groups and schools and libraries today called on congressional leadership to include support for access to affordable broadband services in future “COVID-19 stimulus package(s)”—but their efforts could be facing a formidable obstacle in the form of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.).

Some of the same groups also collected more than 110,000 signatures on petitions making a similar request, they announced during an online press briefing with Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.) and Ed Markey (D., Mass.) and Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D., N.Y.).

Both efforts emphasized the important role broadband access is playing in remote working, distance education, telehealth, and other activities by people who are complying with stay-home policies aimed at stemming the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. They also emphasized that broadband service can be unaffordable for people who have lost jobs or income as businesses have closed or seen decreased demand, and that students who in the past suffered from a lack of broadband when they left school—a situation known as the homework gap—now lack broadband during school hours as well, running the risk of falling even farther behind their peers who can continue their education at home over broadband connections.

“Like food, water, and electricity, everyone needs broadband internet service during this unprecedented crisis. That is why Congress must include policies that support broadband availability, including increased funding for adoption, network sustainability, and deployment for areas still lacking access, in upcoming stimulus packages,” the organizations—including Incompas, the National League of Cities, and Public Knowledge—said in their letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.), Senate Majority Leader McConnell, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.), and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.), dated today.

However, Sen. McConnell has declared his opposition to the inclusion of infrastructure funding—which in recent years is generally viewed as encompassing broadband networks—in COVID-19 response legislation.

During an on-air interview on the Fox News show “Your World with Neil Cavuto” yesterday, the Senate majority leader said while Senate Republicans share President Trump’s interest “in doing an infrastructure bill,” they “don't have an equal interest in borrowing money for future generations to pay for it.” He added that “infrastructure is unrelated to the coronavirus pandemic that we’re all experiencing.”

In a statement responding to Sen. McConnell’s remarks, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio (D., Ore.) today said, “With tens of millions of Americans out of work and entire swaths of the economy shut down by a global health crisis, the country is now on the precipice of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. And just like the New Deal of the 1930s, the best way to re-start our economy and put workers first is with a massive investment in the kind of infrastructure that will help future generations succeed—from better bridges and roads, to robust transit and passenger rail service, to fully-functioning ports and harbors, to modernized waste and drinking water systems, and widely available broadband internet. Rebuilding communities across the country with resilient, innovative infrastructure is how we put millions of people to work in jobs that cannot be exported, while supporting U.S. manufacturing with the strongest Buy America requirements in the entire Federal government, and making our infrastructure smarter, safer, and made to last.”

Organizations that participated in the online press briefing with Democratic lawmakers were Fight for the Future, Demand Progress, Free Press, Common Sense, MediaJustice, the National Hispanic Media Coalition, Access Now, Consumer Reports, Public Knowledge, the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, Libraries Without Borders, and New America’s Open Technology Institute.

Sen. Blumenthal, who accepted the petition, said that the digital divide “is a disparity that is unjust and deeply unwise, … as we are depriving ourselves of talent.”

He said he was proud to have joined 25 colleagues in a letter to congressional leadership asking for the same changes the petition seeks. “This effort should not be controversial, and it ought to be bipartisan,” he added.

Sen. Blumenthal said the next COVID relief or stimulus package—“whatever you want to call it”—should include “at least a billion dollars for Internet access, which is the lifeblood for families right now.”

In a recorded statement, Sen. Markey said that despite nearly a quarter of century of E-rate support for broadband to schools and libraries, “gaps unfortunately remain.” He noted that there are “12 million students in this country who do not have Internet access at home” and that the current pandemic exacerbates their lack of home broadband because they can no longer access the Internet while at school.

“We must use the E-rate immediately to connect kids where they are now, at home,” he said. He added that Congress should “provide robust resources to not only help people learn” during the current pandemic, but to help them work remotely, engage in telehealth, and participate in other online activities.

Sen. Markey was one of the sponsors of what became the E-rate provisions of the 1996 Telecommunications Act when he was in the House.

Also in a recorded statement, Rep. Velasquez said, “At a time when we are telling parents and children that they must learn from home, not having reliable Internet access means they are missing out.”

Another participant in the online press briefing, Jonathan Schwantes, senior policy counsel for Consumer Reports, said, that according to a CR survey conducted this month, 82% of Americans use the Internet every day, and 80% think Internet access is as important as other utilities like electricity and water. He noted that three years ago, only 61% of responded thought the Internet was as important as other utilities.

“Some families may have Internet access available but they can’t afford it,” he said, noting that the service “averages about 66 bucks a month. When you’re out of a job that’s actually a lot of money.”

Caitlin Seeley George, director–campaigns and operations at Fight for the Future, said that some politicians are proposing “relaxing regulation” rather than funding broadband in the hopes that it will encourage deployment. She said that these are same politicians that opposed net neutrality regulations.

Daiquiri Ryan, strategic legal adviser and policy counsel at the National Hispanic Media Coalition, said that “over a third of Latinx families don’t have Internet access at home.” She added, “We need Congress to act to create an emergency Internet access benefit.”

In a statement, Incompas Chief Executive Officer Chip Pickering said, “Broadband connectivity is absolutely essential right now. It means more jobs, education, and health care delivered at home. Small, local builders deploy networks that transform communities with faster speeds and lower prices. Broadband investment has a network effect that lifts all boats—helping small businesses, health care providers and schools. America needs broadband connectivity now more than ever, and we urge Congress to support efforts that will sustain the networks, encourage more local network deployment to meet community needs, and provide jobs and opportunities.” —Lynn Stanton, [email protected]

MainStory: FederalNews Congress BroadbandAdoption BroadbandDeployment Covid19

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