Washington, DC (March 26, 2020) – The Senate unanimously passed late last night a $2 trillion stimulus bill in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The House is set to vote on the bill Friday, March 27. This historic legislation provides funding for individuals, couples, and families.
It also provides some relief for those who are working and learning from home with little to no broadband (high-speed) internet access—including for telehealth. Here’s a breakdown of how some of the funding for improved connectivity is being allocated and what it means for communities across the country.
The bill sets aside $200 million to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to expand the Connected Care telehealth program.
In July of last year, the FCC established a three-year pilot program that would “support bringing telehealth services directly to low-income patients and veterans.” What was originally a $100 million program provided an 85 percent discount on connectivity for broadband-enabled telehealth services.
“This program was intended to address gaps in care by expanding telehealth’s reach to vulnerable populations,” said Tom Ferree, Chairman & CEO, Connected Nation. “Providing funding to grow this program’s potential reach during the coronavirus outbreak is the right thing to do. Doctors and hospitals can leverage telehealth for diagnosing patients and protect healthcare workers from increased chances of exposure.”
The bill allows for $100 million in additional funding for USDA’s ReConnect Program.
This program addresses a huge gap in connectivity. It provides loans and grants specifically for the expansion of broadband in rural areas with the greatest need.
Launched in 2018, it enables the federal government to “partner with the private sector and rural communities to build modern broadband infrastructure in areas with insufficient internet service.” The program defines “insufficient service” as connection speeds of less than 10 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 1 Mbps upload—barely enough to handle email.
Lawmakers allocated $50 million to improve library networks via Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).
“This funding is so critical right now because libraries are one of the few places where families without broadband can traditionally go to get access,” said Heather Gate, Director of Digital Inclusion, Connected Nation. “Now, because of the coronavirus pandemic, many libraries have been forced to close. We need to take this opportunity to consider how these community institutions can continue to provide this vital service in times such as these as we move forward.”
It is estimated that 12 million school aged children fall into the “homework gap”—meaning they do not have internet access needed at home to complete school assignments. In a time of coronavirus, that is becoming the “School Day Gap.” Some students are unable to get any instruction at all simply because they do not have broadband.
The bill also provides $25 million in additional funding for USDA’s Distance Learning, Telemedicine, and Broadband Grant Program.
The Distance Learning and Telemedicine program provides funding for rural communities to use telecommunications to link teachers to students and medical service providers to patients. Although, this does address some of the need for remote learning many educational groups say there should be more funding directed to closing the “homework gap” in all communities.
The Department of Veterans Affairs is also able to use some of its appropriated funding to pay for broadband connectivity for expanded mental health services to isolated veterans, but, for now, it’s unclear how much would be available for this purpose.
The bill is a proactive and positive step in helping Americans make it through this crisis. However, it also shines a spotlight on the need for us to treat expanding broadband access to all Americans with more urgency.
“We all were witness to what took place as first schools closed, then businesses,” said Ferree. “Millions of individuals and families found themselves at home—forced to work and learn online. But there are more than 18 million Americans who do not have adequate internet access. We must ask ourselves what can be done to help them now and in the future—because without access, they are, at the very base level, left out of resources they need in critical times like these.”
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