Federal funding to build broadband networks in rural, underserved, and underserved areas of the country is a top priority of the Democrats. While Republicans also generally support greater broadband deployment, Democrats, including FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, have advocated for higher levels of funding and more focus on broadband affordability to close the digital divide and homework gap.
The new Administration's economic recovery plan, which faces Republican opposition in Congress, includes an additional $20 billion to fund the buildout of fixed and mobile broadband networks. Of more immediate impact will be the FCC's ongoing implementation of broadband programs currently in place or recently enacted. These include:
- RDOF I – In November 2020, the FCC's Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) Phase I reverse auction closed, with winning bidders eligible to receive $9.2 billion in subsidies to build broadband networks in unserved and underserved census blocks to help bridge the “digital divide.” The winning bidders must submit their post-auction funding applications by January 29, 2021. A recent bipartisan letter signed by 159 members of Congress questioned whether some RDOF I auction winners are, in fact, capable of building and operating their proposed networks to provide 1 Gbps service to rural areas, and asked the FCC to carefully review and process the applications before making final funding decisions.
- RDOF II – The FCC will conduct a second reverse auction to award an additional $11.2 billion to fund the buildout of broadband infrastructure in census blocks that either received no winning bids in the RDOF I auction or that have only partial access to broadband services. The new FCC will determine the schedule for the RDOF II auction after it concludes processing the RDOF I applications. Rules adopted on January 19, 2021 to improve the broadband data collection and mapping requirements to assess more accurately the communities that lack access to broadband are now subject to the new Administration's regulatory freeze.
- 5G Mobility Fund – In October 2020, the FCC finalized rules for the 5G Fund for Rural America, which will provide up to $9 billion to build 5G mobile broadband networks in rural areas. The FCC has already determined to hold two reverse auctions to allocate the funding, but no dates have been set.
- Emergency Broadband Benefit Program - The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 (2021 CAA) provides $3.2 billion to ensure broadband service is affordable for low-income and Tribal area families. This program will provide a discount of up to $50 per month off the retail price of broadband service for qualifying low-income households, up to $75 per month for families in Tribal areas, and $100 for certain connected devices. On February 26, 2021, the FCC adopted a Report and Order establishing rules to implement the program, and set a goal to commence payments under the program by the end of April 2021.
COVID-19 Telehealth and the Connected Care Pilot Programs - The 2021 CAA appropriated $249.9 million for the FCC's existing COVID-19 Telehealth Program, directs the FCC to seek comments on metrics for funding applications, and directs that funds be distributed to at least one applicant in each State and the District of Columbia. The COVID-19 Telehealth Program provides funding to eligible health care providers for the purchase of telecommunications and information services and certain devices necessary to provide telehealth services to their patients in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. An eligible health care provider must file an application with the FCC and, if the application is granted, the provider must submit invoicing forms and documentation to receive reimbursement. The Pilot Program will reimburse participating eligible health care providers their costs for broadband connectivity, network equipment, and information services necessary to provide connected care to patients in their communities. On January 15, 2021, the FCC selected 14 initial pilot projects in 11 states which will receive a total funding of $26.6 million.
- E-Rate and Lifeline Program – These two longstanding FCC programs provide funding for low-income people to afford broadband services, and broadband and telecommunications services and infrastructure for schools and libraries. The FCC and the Biden Administration are likely to expand funding of both programs to address the digital divide and the “homework gap.”
In addition, the NTIA will administer three new broadband programs enacted under the 2021 CAA:
- Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program - Under this program, grants totaling $1 billion will fund projects that expand access to and adoption of fixed broadband service, remote learning, telework, or telehealth. While only Tribal organizations are eligible for the grants, they may sub-contract with non-Tribal commercial entities.
- Broadband Infrastructure Program - This program will provide $300 million to partnerships between state or local governments and fixed wireless broadband providers to deploy broadband networks in rural and unserved areas.
- Connectivity for Minority Institutions Pilot Program - Under this program, a total of $285 million will fund pilot programs for historically Black or Tribal colleges and universities to purchase broadband service or IT-related expenses.