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Broadband push gains traction for next virus aid package

Expansive plan that would finance internet access for low-income and rural communities could be added to next COVID-19 relief bill

House Democrats on Thursday renewed their push for an $86 billion broadband expansion, arguing that if the coronavirus pandemic stretches into next fall, students without internet access risk being left behind if schools remain closed.

Party leaders said some of the broadband and distance learning money could be tacked onto the next round of COVID-19 relief, which House Democrats are in the process of assembling.

“If we are going to experience … another round of this virus, our children are apt to be out of school again next year,” said House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., who is chairman of the House Democratic Rural Broadband Task Force. “And if that were to happen, the only way you can have online learning is with broadband.”

Clyburn, a former public school teacher, said just 34 percent of the communities in his district are tied to the internet. “And I can tell you what happens when a child falls two years behind in school; that child will never graduate high school and will never become a productive citizen as a rule,” he said.

Democrats appear likely to see support from across the aisle. Speaking hours later, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy acknowledged that “broadband is a very good discussion,” as part of the next pandemic relief package.

“I think broadband is an appropriate discussion for us to have regardless of whether we’re doing an infrastructure bill or not,” he told reporters.

The $2 trillion economic rescue package enacted last month included $31 billion for education assistance, including $13.5 billion for elementary and secondary education. Supporting education technology and distance learning are among the eligible uses of funds.

The House Democrats’ more expansive broadband plan largely mirrors one introduced as part of a larger Democratic infrastructure proposal Jan. 29. It would spend $80 billion over five years to expand broadband access to underserved areas, prioritizing the poorest communities. It would also offer $5 billion over five years for low-interest loans to allow communities and other eligible entities to apply for secured loans, loan guarantee and lines of credit.

Their plan would provide an additional $1 billion to establish a grant program for states to help close gaps in broadband adoption and to create a grant program to further push broadband access.

The bill would require internet service providers who use federal funding to build networks to offer at least one affordable option, increase existing payment support and expand eligibility to low-income and recently unemployed Americans who can’t afford broadband and guarantee the right of local governments, public-private partnerships and cooperatives to deliver broadband.

The latest iteration of the Democrats’ plan would also lend mobile hot spots so students without internet access at home could participate in remote learning and complete homework that requires an internet connection.

And it would authorize funding for Wi-Fi on school buses so students can be connected even in rural areas where long bus rides are common.

‘New Deal for broadband’

Christopher Mitchell, director of Community Broadband Networks at the Minnesota-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance, said the country is currently on the path to the entire nation having access to decent broadband in the next 10 to 15 years.

Were the House Democrats’ proposal to become law, “I think this would do just about everyone in five years,” Mitchell said.

In the short term, the hot spots would make an immediate difference, he said. Broadband takes time to implement, but hot spots would present an immediate short-term solution were students forced to learn remotely next fall.

It would also help in urban areas where broadband is too expensive. Mitchell said for every one person in a rural area without access to broadband, four exist in an urban area that cannot afford it.

“I think this amount of money could be a total game changer in urban and rural America if spent correctly,” he said. “This would be the New Deal for broadband.”

The Federal Communications Commission estimates more than 21 million Americans lack access to high-speed internet, but even FCC commissioners assume that number is low. BroadbandNow, a website that helps consumers locate internet service providers, estimates the number is closer to 42 million.

Expanding access to either the internet or broadband has been an oft-stated political priority since its widespread adoption. But the pandemic, with its stay-at-home orders, has highlighted the digital divide as millions of Americans have begun working from home and attending school virtually.

Underscoring the bipartisan political support for more internet access, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee ranking member Sam Graves, R-Mo., and Economic Development Subcommittee ranking member John Katko, R-N.Y., introduced a bill earlier this month that would make it easier for communities to use Economic Development Administration grants to deploy broadband.

The GOP bill would also make funding match requirements more flexible and eliminate hurdles that have prevented communities from partnering with the private sector to deploy broadband.

Since the pandemic began spreading in the U.S., House Democrats have tried to recycle all or parts of their Jan. 29 infrastructure framework as part of COVID-19 relief efforts.

Most recently, President Donald Trump signaled he wanted to see infrastructure spending in the next pandemic response bill. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell Tuesday said infrastructure spending is “unrelated” to the coronavirus and should not be part of pandemic relief efforts.

On April 1, Speaker Nancy Pelosi joined House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., to announce they would push their five-year, $760 billion infrastructure framework as part of efforts to help the economy recover from the pandemic.

But within days, Pelosi pulled back from that plan, arguing instead to push forward with aid to individuals and small businesses as the pandemic continued to spread.

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