House OKs $100B broadband plan with $50 monthly discounts for poor people

The US House of Representatives yesterday approved $100 billion worth of broadband funding as part of a $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill.

The broadband portion is modeled on the Democrats’ “universal fiber” plan we wrote about last week. The plan includes $80 billion in fiscal year 2021, money that the Federal Communications Commission would use to fund high-speed broadband projects in unserved and underserved areas. Funded projects would have to provide 100Mbps download and upload speeds, along with low latencies, conditions that would spur fiber-to-the-home development.

The bill has additional money for broadband-deployment loans, grants for states to pursue digital-inclusion projects, Wi-Fi on school buses, and network equipment for schools and libraries. It also includes a $9 billion Broadband Connectivity Fund to provide $50 monthly discounts for low-income broadband users, and $75 monthly discounts for low-income households in Tribal lands. The broadband portions of the infrastructure bill are in this set of amendments.

The bill also has a Dig Once requirement that says fiber or fiber conduit must be installed “as part of any covered highway construction project” in states that receive federal highway funding. The bill would also overturn state laws that “prohibit or have the effect of prohibiting” municipal broadband networks.

“This legislation takes a comprehensive approach towards closing the digital divide by focusing on deployment and affordability,” Senior Policy Counsel Jenna Leventoff of consumer-advocacy group Public Knowledge said. “Ensuring that consumers not only have the ability to purchase broadband, but also the ability to afford it is key for narrowing our nation’s staggering digital divide.”

Party-line vote

The infrastructure bill isn’t likely to pass as currently written in the Republican-controlled Senate, but it’s possible at least some of the broadband portions will become law in a compromise. The overall bill passed by a vote of 233-188, while the broadband provisions were part of a set of amendments that passed in a 234-178 vote. “While the party-line vote on the full bill is a fact of our current politics, no one should make the mistake of thinking the broadband provisions are partisan,” Free Press General Counsel Matt Wood said. “People in cities and rural areas alike need better broadband at better prices, no matter their party or politics. The Moving Forward Act recognizes and addresses the needs of communities most often left out of congressional debates on communications policy.”

The legislation also recognizes “that the vast majority of people who are disconnected today are offline because of the high price of Internet services that are physically available to them but out of reach financially,” Wood said. “This dilemma disproportionately impacts Black and Brown people, poorer communities and other groups hit hardest by the pandemic. Lacking an Internet connection during this health crisis exacerbates existing economic inequities and deepens digital divides.”

The House-approved package is one of several pending attempts to close broadband gaps. Another Democratic bill would provide $50 monthly broadband credits ($75 in Tribal lands) for people who have been laid off or furloughed during the pandemic.

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