The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, signed into law on December 27, 2020, appropriates $900 billion for coronavirus relief for individuals and businesses, including $7 billion for broadband connectivity and infrastructure.
The broadband provisions of the law include:
- Amendments to the Secure and Trusted Communications Network Reimbursement Program. The law expands eligibility for the FCC's Secure and Trusted Reimbursement Program, also known as “rip and replace,” and appropriates $1.9 billion to compensate providers for the cost of removing and replacing unsecure equipment (including from Chinese suppliers Huawei and ZTE) from their networks. The law prioritizes small and rural providers and educational institutions for reimbursements. The FCC earlier this month adopted rules and procedures for the reimbursement program, implementing the Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Act of 2019.
- Connecting Minority Communities. The law establishes an Office of Minority Broadband Initiatives at the Department of Commerce's NTIA to focus on broadband access and adoption at Historically Black colleges or universities, Tribal colleges and universities, and other Minority-serving institutions, including the students, faculty, and staff of such institutions and their surrounding communities. It also appropriates $285 million for a Pilot Program to award grants to these institutions and certain businesses and non-profit organizations in the community to support connectivity, and specifies that at least 20% of such funds be used to ensure that students of such institutions have internet service and devices.
- FCC COVID-19 Telehealth Program. The law appropriates an additional $250 million to the FCC for its COVID-19 Telehealth Program authorized under the CARES Act. It also puts in place new transparency obligations for the program surrounding the FCC's review of applications, and directs the FCC to ensure, to the extent feasible, that all states benefit from the program.
Benefit for Broadband Service During Emergency Period Relating to COVID-19. The law establishes a $3.2 billion Emergency Broadband Benefit Program (EBBP) for low-income eligible households toreceive a discount of up to $50 per month (or up to $75 per month for households on Tribal lands) off the cost of broadband Internet service and a subsidy for low-cost devices such as laptop computers and tablets. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) that provide the discounted service or devices to customers can receive a reimbursement from the FCC. Households eligible for the benefit include those with children that qualify for the free and reduced lunch program, Pell grant recipients, recently laid off or furloughed workers, an individual who qualifies for the Lifeline program, or an individual who qualifies for a low-income or COVID-19 discount program offered by ISPs.
On January 4, 2021, the FCC released a Public Notice seeking public comments on its proposed rules to implement the EBBP, including the application and funding procedures for qualified ISPs. Comments on the Public Notice proposals are due January 26, 2021 and reply comments are due February 16, 2021. The FCC will likely finalize the EBBP rules in late February to early March, 2021.
- Grants for Broadband Connectivity. The law establishes two grant programs at the NTIA. The first will support broadband connectivity on tribal lands throughout the U.S., with $1 billion allocated for grants to tribal governments to be used for broadband deployment on tribal lands as well as telehealth, distance learning, broadband affordability, and digital inclusion. The second is a $300 million broadband deployment program to support broadband infrastructure deployment to areas lacking broadband, especially rural areas. The grants would be issued to qualifying partnerships between state and local governments and fixed broadband providers. Priority for grants would be given to networks that would reach the most unserved consumers.
- Broadband Mapping. The law appropriates $65 million to the FCC to create broadband data maps required under the Broadband DATA Act.