House Democrats today introduced a $3 trillion COVID-19 response bill that includes $4 billion for a new Emergency Broadband Connectivity Fund to provide deeper Lifeline discounts to help low-income households and those who have lost their jobs during the pandemic pay for broadband connections, as well as $1.5 billion for a new Emergency Connectivity Fund that schools and libraries could use to provide Wi-Fi hot spots and other connected devices and services to students, school staff, and library patrons engaged in remote learning, working, and other online activities while staying home to reduce the spread of the virus.
The House Democrats’ proposal for what would be the fifth legislative package to address the COVID-19 pandemic—dubbed the Heroes Act in a nod to provisions aimed at providing financial support to first responders, health care workers, teachers, and essential workers—would also authorize, subject to later appropriation, an additional $5 billion for the Emergency Connectivity Fund for schools and libraries, an additional $8.8 billion for the Emergency Broadband Connectivity Fund, an additional $2 billion for an Emergency Health Care Connectivity Fund, and $200 million for state grants to connect the state supplemental nutrition assistance program database to the National Lifeline Eligibility Verifier.
The FCC would have seven days after enactment of the bill to adopt rules for both the ECF and EBCF.
At least 5% of the $5 billion ECF would be set aside for schools and libraries serving people living on tribal lands. Monthly EBCF support for low-income individuals on tribal lands would be $75, rather than the $50 monthly benefit for individuals not on tribal lands.
Households that meet existing FCC Lifeline requirements and households of which at least one member has “experienced a substantial loss of income since February 29, 2020, documented by layoff or furlough notice, application for unemployment insurance benefits, or similar documentation” would be eligible for EBCF support.
The bill would require that Lifeline-supported mobile service include unlimited monthly voice minutes, an unlimited monthly data allowance, and 4G speeds.
The money for both the ECF and the EBCF would remain available until Sept. 30, 2021.
The bill also would repeal the statutory requirement that the FCC auction public safety T-band spectrum and relocate incumbents. The public safety community has been pushing for such action. The Senate version of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act (HR 748), which was signed into law in March (TR Daily, March 27), did not include the T-band provision, although the original House version of the bill did. Under the Middle Class Tax Cut and Job Creation Act of 2012, the FCC has to auction public safety T-band spectrum by 2021 and relocate incumbents by 2023.
The Heroes Act also contains provisions to prohibit telephone and broadband service providers from stopping service to consumers unable to pay during the duration of the emergency; to prohibit them from imposing late fees; and to prohibit them from imposing data limits or overage charges. It would require providers that operate Wi-Fi hot spots in public spaces to open them to the public at no charge during the COVID emergency period.
The bill would require the FCC to adopt rules to ensure just and reasonable inmate calling rates, pending which interim rate caps of 4 cents per minute for debit and prepaid calls and 5 cents per minute for collect calls would apply.
It would designate “988” as the short dialing code to reach the nationwide suicide prevention and mental health crisis hotline.
In a tweet, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D., Md.) said that the House will vote on the bill as early as Friday. In a joint statement, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone Jr. (D., N.J.) and communications and technology subcommittee Chairman Mike Doyle (D., Pa.) said, “With schools closed and millions out of work, Congress must use its powers to keep Americans connected. This bill keeps all of our kids safe and digitally connected, providing $1.5 billion immediately for online distance learning. It also provides much-needed support to struggling families, those who are low-income or have someone in the family who has been furloughed or laid off, by providing them a monthly credit of up to $50 on their internet service bills. We’re hopeful that this legislation will garner strong, bipartisan support so we can stand up for children and families who are struggling during this pandemic.”
House Commerce Committee ranking member Greg Walden (R., Ore.) criticized the bill as “partisan,” saying that it was “[w]ritten behind closed doors in the Speaker’s Office.”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R, Calif.) rejected the bill, saying in a statement, “The problems with this 1815-page, multi-trillion dollar messaging bill are plain to see. Its central demands—changing election laws, bailing out mismanaged pensions, and temporarily suspending the cap on SALT tax deductions for millionaires and billionaires—were drafted behind closed doors, predate the crisis, and are not targeted to coronavirus.”
He added, “Republicans reject Democrats’ liberal wish list and will continue to focus on getting Americans back to work and defeating this virus by incentivizing rehiring and removing regulatory barriers to job creation, protecting small businesses from frivolous lawsuits, and returning our supply chain from China. That is the type of focus the American people expect from their government.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) issued a statement in support of the Heroes Act, saying, “The American people need their government to act strongly, boldly and wisely, and this new legislation is just what this crisis demands. [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell [R., Ky.] and Senate Republicans ought to heed the lessons of U.S. history and not repeat the mistakes made by President Hoover that helped lead to the Great Depression. Despite Senator McConnell’s recent statement that he feels no urgency to act immediately, tens of millions of American families and workers struggling to put food on the table, afford rent, and provide for their children need help from the federal government and we must deliver it fast.”
Christina Mason, VP–government affairs for the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association, said, “WISPA appreciates the scope of the HEROES Act, especially as it pertains to keeping families hit hardest by the pandemic online, connected and safe. We signed the FCC’s Keep Americans Connected pledge, as well as its extension, and the support noted in the Act will go far to ensure all Americans remain connected through the duration of the pandemic. We look forward to working with the FCC in implementing the Act, creating a flexible and sufficient framework which helps keep small ISPs on the frontlines of this battle as they support those who call for their service.”
John Windhausen Jr., executive director of the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition, said, “By introducing the HEROES Act, House Democrats show that they recognize the vital importance of connecting people they serve to affordable broadband during and after the COVID-19 health crisis. But the legislation does not provide sufficient funding for schools, libraries, and healthcare providers to address the school closures, health crises, and economic dislocation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The SHLB Coalition has proposed $2 billion in appropriations for the Rural Health Care program and $5.25 billion for E-rate to the Home, and we encourage Congress to provide these resources as soon as possible.”
National Association of Broadcasters President and Chief Executive Officer Gordon Smith applauded the inclusion in the bill “of expanded access to Payroll Protection Program loans for local radio and television stations in today’s draft Coronavirus economic relief legislation.”
In a statement, Free Press Action Vice President–policy and general counsel Matt Wood said, “The HEROES Act recognizes that better and more affordable broadband connections are essential during this health crisis and the long period of economic recovery. … The bill would get people connected to the networks they have available to them today, not merely look ahead to funding broadband deployment in rural areas sometime in the distant future.”
He added that the bill’s $50 per month low-income emergency broadband benefit “should allow millions more people to afford internet connections at home, serving the whole family during these difficult times rather than keeping them exclusively dependent on less robust mobile connections.”
Mr. Wood also praised the bill’s moratorium on telecom and broadband disconnections for nonpayment as “vastly improving on the voluntary pledge put forth by the FCC, which implored these corporations to make similar promises but had no real ability to ensure those pledges were kept.”
As for the inmate calling provisions, Mr. Wood said, “While this kind of legislation was sorely needed before the pandemic, the suspension of visitations and the rapid spread of the virus in prisons, jails and detention facilities has made the status quo untenable. People who are incarcerated and their families must have access to communications services at just and reasonable rates. This bill would give the FCC the authority to take action.”
Public Knowledge Senior Policy Counsel Jenna Leventoff said, “Although connectivity was critical before this pandemic, it is particularly critical when most Americans are being told to stay at home. This legislation contains key provisions to ensure that broadband is affordable to both those who could not afford it before the pandemic, and those who cannot afford it now. It also ensures that no one is cut off from this vital service due to an inability to pay and that students without broadband can get connected so that they don’t fall behind their peers during the pandemic. We encourage Congress to pass this package as well as additional legislation aimed at fully closing the digital divide once this pandemic ends.” —Lynn Stanton, [email protected], and Paul Kirby, [email protected]
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