Pallone Seeks $2B 'Emergency Broadband Benefit' in Next COVID-19 Bill
House Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone, N.J., is circulating discussion language to provide $2 billion in “emergency broadband benefit” funding in the next COVID-19 stimulus bill. Some lobbyists we spoke with see the draft as Democrats’ bid to resurrect plans for emergency broadband funding without providing new ammunition to Lifeline critics. Several Democratic lawmakers want future COVID-19 legislation to fund broadband and other infrastructure (see 2003260063). Some groups are urging Congress to use the coming measure to address other communications policy priorities, including media funding (see 2004090066).
Pallone’s draft somewhat mirrors House Democrats’ proposal for emergency Lifeline funding included in their Take Responsibility for Workers and Families Act (HR-6379), which they floated during talks on the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (HR-748), the most recent aid law. HR-6379 proposed $1 billion for Lifeline, in contrast to the Pallone draft’s $2 billion (see 2003230066). Pallone's proposal, like HR-6379, would allocate money to a proposed U.S. Treasury-administered Emergency Broadband Connectivity Fund. The FCC would reimburse ISPs for service provided to qualifying households. The funding would be used to support service only during pandemic-related emergency periods.
The proposal doesn't link the proposed broadband funding to Lifeline, though it says participating providers could use the Lifeline eligibility national verifier to determine whether a household is eligible for service supported by the emergency appropriation. Households could also qualify if at least one member “has experienced a severe loss of income since February 29, 2020, due to a loss of job or furlough” or “has applied for and been approved to receive benefits under the free and reduced price lunch program … or the school breakfast program." Providers wouldn't need to be designated as eligible Lifeline providers to receive reimbursements. The draft would bar the FCC from drawing from existing Lifeline funding.
The draft would set separate reimbursement levels for Tier I, II and III service and additional funding for service to households on tribal lands. ISPs would receive a maximum of $50 monthly for each qualifying household to get Tier I service of 100 Mbps download and 10 Mbps upload. Providers could receive up to $75 monthly for tribal households receiving Tier I service. Providers would receive a maximum of $30 monthly -- $55 for tribal -- for Tier II 25/3 Mbps service. They would get $15 -- up to $40 a month for tribal -- for Tier III 10/1 Mbps. ISPs would garner $30 -- up to $55 for tribal -- for qualifying wireless services of 20 GB 20 GB of monthly data allowance.
ISPs could seek up to $100 for supplying a computer to a qualifying household if the charge to the residence is $10-$50 monthly. Providers could seek more if they demonstrate the service cost “exceeds the rate of reimbursement.” The draft limits reimbursements from the funding for Tier III or qualifying wireless service at 20 percent, or $400 million. There would be FCC “audit requirements to ensure that participating providers are in compliance with" program rules "and to prevent waste, fraud, and abuse."
The proposal would raise minimum service standards for Lifeline mobile voice service during the emergency period to 4,000 minutes monthly from the current 1,000. Pallone and staff separated the proposed emergency broadband funding from Lifeline because the National Republican Congressional Committee cited the earlier bid to provide money to the USF program in HR-6379 as an example of Democrats attempting to “cram” COVID-19 legislation “full of unrelated liberal goodies” (see 2003240064), lobbyists said. It’s believed Pallone is circulating the draft with the backing of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and other Democratic leaders. House Commerce didn’t comment.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and 26 other Democratic caucus members urged Pelosi and other Capitol Hill leaders Tuesday to include at least $1 billion in Lifeline funding in future coronavirus legislation. “The current baseline is woefully insufficient to last a few days for students taking online courses or families using video chat services, let alone for a full month,” the senators wrote.
“Increased funding would allow for a better reimbursement rate and other support that would secure the levels of service needed,” the Democratic senators said. Lifeline currently lacks "financial resources to equitably support even a moderate but prolonged increase in demand, in response to an economic downturn.” Signers include Senate Communications Subcommittee ranking member Brian Schatz of Hawaii and five other Commerce Committee members -- Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Gary Peters of Michigan.
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights led more than 80 groups in urging Congress provide $2 billion-$3 billion per month in “low-income broadband” funding during the pandemic as part of the next stimulus bill. That would pay for service to “all eligible low-income households and the newly unemployed -- approximately 60 million households,” the groups wrote Hill leaders. Qualifying households would be “within 135 percent of the federal poverty guideline, recently laid off, furloughed, applied for or approved for state unemployment insurance, participate in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Medicaid, free and reduced school lunch, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Federal Public Housing Assistance (FPHA), or the Veterans Pension and Survivors Benefit.”
Four House members, including ex-Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., are seeking additional signers on a pending letter to President Donald Trump to use executive branch resources to support local media. The lawmakers want Trump to direct cabinet secretaries “to review any resources intended to be used for advertising campaigns and have them expedite such activities with local media outlets.” They want federal agencies’ advertising for programs “where community outreach is needed for spending with local media, including those serving minority and rural communities.” The lawmakers want Trump to incentivize “a portion of stimulus funds” allocated to businesses via HR-748 and other COVID-19 measures “for advertising on local media.” Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., is leading work on the letter. Two other House Commerce members also signed on: Republican Bill Flores and Democrat Marc Veasey, both of Texas.