It takes up just a few pages in the $900 billion (and 5,593 page) deal, but the coronavirus stimulus package includes a range of measures aimed to improve internet connections across the country. The deal includes $7 billion to boost the network as well as help lower-income Americans get online.
The money may also be — some hope — a down payment on much bigger broadband funding to come in the Biden administration as part of a larger infrastructure deal.
The deal, outlined by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on Sunday, “invests $7 billion to increase access to broadband, including a new Emergency Broadband Benefit to help millions of students, families and unemployed workers afford the broadband they need during the pandemic.”
In the bill itself, the emergency broadband benefit is defined as a fund to provide a monthly benefit to qualifying low-income households or households with a recently unemployed member “in an amount equal to such amount charged, but not more than $50.” The government will provide money to participating internet service providers to then offer discounts to their clients.
In the end, the goal is to give families a break on their broadband bills — or help them afford to get connected.
“We cannot allow kids to have to sit in parking lots at Taco Bells to do their homework,” said Jonathan Spalter, president and CEO of USTelecom in a recent interview as negotiators hammered out the final details. USTelecom is a Washington-based association that represents broadband and technology companies, including Verizon, the parent company of Yahoo Finance.
“Every member that I speak to in the Senate and in the House are all aligned in a clear bipartisan way that broadband must be prioritized,” he said.
In a statement upon the release of details of the bill, Gigi Sohn, a Georgetown Law Institute for Technology & Policy Distinguished Fellow, noted in a statement that the new assistance meant a recognition “that high-speed broadband internet in the home is essential for full participation in American society.”
During a recent appearance on CNN, Sen. Mark Warner (D., Va.) noted the money for broadband, which he called an “economic necessity.”
The funding for broadband is just one of the provisions — like a second wave of funding for the Paycheck Protection Program or an extension of some increased unemployment benefits — that had bipartisan support but had been held up for months as lawmakers were stuck over more controversial provisions in the bill.
The National Digital Inclusion Alliance, a group that pushes for more broadband access, celebrated the emergency broadband benefit in a statement and said: “We must keep working toward a permanent broadband benefit plus financial support for outreach to eligible populations.”
‘This is an important start’
Internet speeds and costs vary wildly depending on where you live. Some people in rural areas, for instance, haven’t been able to keep up amid widespread distance learning and stay-at-home orders in recent months. A Rand study found that just 30% of teachers in high-poverty schools reported that all or nearly all of their students had internet access at home, compared with 83% of teachers in low-poverty schools.
Spalter wants the U.S. government to put a lot more into broadband in the years ahead; he says the final price tag should be closer to $70 billion and USTelecom is pushing a broadband plan for Biden’s first 100 days.
He says funding this year is “an important start.” Spalter said his group has heard from President-elect Biden, who is reportedly aiming to make rural broadband an early area of bipartisan agreement once he takes office.
Spalter also had praise for the nominee for Transportation Secretary, Pete Buttigieg. During his own run for the presidency, Buttigieg introduced an infrastructure plan that had $80 billion set aside for rural broadband.
“As a mayor I think he understood the importance broadband brought to his city and his state,” says Spalter.
Ben Werschkul is a writer and producer for Yahoo Finance in Washington, DC.