Coronavirus relief package includes broadband money for low-income, jobless

It also has funds to replace Chinese-made telecommunications equipment in mobile phone systems

Jackson Federico, a tower technician for Advanced Wireless Solutions, works to make some repairs on the dish on the Pollard cell tower high off the ground in rural Rio Blanco County  near Meeker, Colorado, in July 2020.   (Denver Post via Getty Images)
Jackson Federico, a tower technician for Advanced Wireless Solutions, works to make some repairs on the dish on the Pollard cell tower high off the ground in rural Rio Blanco County near Meeker, Colorado, in July 2020. (Denver Post via Getty Images)
Posted December 21, 2020 at 11:31am

The $900 billion coronavirus relief package announced late Sunday contains $7 billion for broadband, including funding for those struggling to afford internet access and for service providers to remove and replace telecommunications equipment manufactured by Chinese companies labeled national security threats.

The deal includes $3.2 billion for the Federal Communications Commission to provide a  new emergency broadband benefit of $50 per month to low-income families and recently laid-off or furloughed workers. The provision is based on legislation by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Texas.

Details were provided as part of a Democratic summary and information from House Minority Whip Steve Scalise’s office.

“Broadband connections are essential for Americans seeking to get new jobs, and to access school, health care and other government services,” Wyden said in a statement. “Ensuring working families can stay online will pay massive dividends for kids' education, helping people find jobs and jump starting the economic recovery next year.”

Advocates called the provision a historic achievement that could help tens of millions of Americans bridge what has become known as the “digital divide.”

“The lack of affordable options is a huge barrier,” said Matt Wood, vice president of policy for the nonpartisan advocacy group Free Press Action. “But the inability to pay for services that are already available in their neighborhoods is the biggest reason why nearly 80 million people lack adequate home internet — including 30 percent of Black people, 30 percent of Latinx people and 34 percent of Indigenous people in the United States.”

The deal also includes $1 billion for broadband on tribal lands and $300 million for rural broadband deployment. Additionally, it provides $250 million for telehealth services and $65 million to correct and complete broadband maps showing where people can currently get a signal and where they cannot.

[FCC, Democrats squabble over broadband data maps]  

The relief package also includes nearly $2 billion to help small and rural internet service providers comply with a recent FCC order requiring them to remove and replace equipment made by the Chinese firms Huawei and ZTE. The FCC estimates the process would cost at least $1.6 billion, though outgoing Chairman Ajit Pai has said greater costs are likely.

[FCC order to 'rip and replace' Chinese 5G gear will face Biden]

The provision had been sought by members of both parties, led by Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Chairman Roger Wicker, R-Miss.

“This is a national security imperative,” Wicker and a group of mostly Republican senators wrote to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and top appropriators recently. “Fully funding this program is essential to protecting the integrity of our communications infrastructure and the future viability of our digital economy at large.”