Congress is set to vote on a coronavirus stimulus bill that, among other things, would direct $7 billion to address broadband connectivity in the country.
Throughout the pandemic, lawmakers and advocacy groups have called on funding to be added to bills to help more Americans access the internet. The digital divide, or those without access to broadband, and the homework gap, students who don’t have access to broadband, have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
The stimulus agreement was announced on Sunday evening, with a vote expected to come as early as today.
Overall, the stimulus will direct $7 billion to increase broadband access. It also includes $3.2 billion as part of an “Emergency Broadband Benefit” that would give low-income families $50 per month to help pay for broadband access, according to Axios.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the Emergency Broadband Benefit would “help millions of students, families, and unemployed workers afford the broadband they need during the pandemic.”
Meanwhile, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who wrote the Emergency Broadband Connections Act, which the monthly benefit is based on, said in a statement that he believed the provision would “pay massive dividends for kids’ education, helping people find jobs and jump-starting the economic recovery next year.”
Wyden’s bill laid out a plan to provide a $50 benefit for recently laid off or furloughed Americans to help pay for internet access.
The billions of dollars included in the stimulus would also send funds to help rural broadband deployment, fund a pilot program to help historically Black colleges and universities with broadband issues, improve broadband mapping, and provide grants for Tribal broadband programs, according to Axios, citing a source.
The inclusion of broadband, and the monthly benefits for people, in the stimulus package were cheered by internet advocates.
“This benefit is a much-needed response to the lack of affordable broadband choices, which is the primary factor driving the U.S. digital divide,” Free Press Action Vice President of Policy and General Counsel Matt Wood said in a statement. “The lack of affordable options is a huge barrier to universal adoption; it gets far less attention than problems like rural deployment.”
Meanwhile, Gigi Sohn, a distinguished fellow at the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law & Policy and former FCC counselor, called the monthly benefit “historic.”
“The inclusion of a monthly emergency broadband benefit in the COVID-19 relief bill is historic,” Sohn said. “The United States Congress, with bipartisan support, has recognized that high-speed broadband internet in the home is essential for full participation in American society, its economy, its education and health care systems, and its civic life, and that government must ensure that everyone is online, especially during this pandemic.”