Over the past year and a half, the federal government passed three major bills to help families, workers, schools, libraries and tribal programs through the immediate challenges caused by the Covid 19 pandemic. Additional bills in the works, including an infrastructure bill and the $3.5 trillion Budget Reconciliation, will have much longer-term impacts. These bills, earmarking over $50 billion for broadband investments and digital equity initiatives, give us reason to be optimistic about the future of equitable access.
Current Funding for Broadband Access
In 2020, the CARES Act established grants worth hundreds of millions of dollars to help libraries, schools, tribal programs and health services pay for technology devices and network access. The objective of the Cares ACT was to keep everyone connected throughout the Covid-19 mandated closures. It was pivotal in closing the digital divide during the pandemic. The American Rescue Plan, passed in March 2021, made even more funds available for economic recovery efforts, but didn’t specifically earmark a percentage to broadband.
New Programs and Funding on the Horizon
Broadband access is firmly woven into critical aspects of nearly everyone’s lives. The pandemic simply cemented that fact. Our work lives, education, social endeavors and even our access to physical and mental health services have become increasingly dependent on internet access. That’s why equitable broadband access is so important. With the passing of the impending Infrastructure and Budget Reconciliation bills, we will grow closer to our goal of digital equity for all in communities across the US.
In August 2021, the Senate approved infrastructure legislation that will provide funds for everything from roadwork and bridge repair to electrical grids, climate resilience and broadband investments. The bill, still awaiting House approval, could impact broadband accessibility significantly:
• $42 billion in matching grants to fund state-level broadband equity, access and deployment in areas without reliable connectivity options. With minimum build-out speed requirements of 100 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload, the investments will help level the playing field for people in unserved or underserved communities.
• $1 billion to enable open access middle mile broadband infrastructure. Another matching grant program, these dollars will make it more feasible for providers to build connections between national and regional internet backbones to far-flung, often rural, connection points (at a town library, for example). Once a connection is made, a local high-performance broadband network can fan out to households and businesses in the surrounding area. In their blog, Open-Access, Middle-Mile Networks: Deployment and Competition, The Benton Institute describes a few real-world examples of these deployments.
• $1.3 billion in support of the Digital Equity Act of 2021, establishing a competitive digital equity grant program for public sector and nonprofit digital inclusion programs.
• Several “broadband affordability” initiatives to protect digital equity by extending the existing Emergency Broadband Benefit and creating rules to end digital redlining and other discriminatory practices.
Voqal, broadband philanthropic organization and founder of Mobile Citizen, calls the infrastructure bill’s proposed investments in broadband deployment, affordability and equity “long overdue”. You can read more details in their recent blog, Voqal Support Senate’s Historic Investment in Broadband.
Budget Reconciliation Bill
Also on the horizon, the Budget Reconciliation Bill represents a $3.5 trillion package. If passed, it could impact major change in health care, social and climate policy. This historic bill includes an effort to expand Emergency Connectivity Funds (ECF) for 5 years at $8B per year. ECF dollars have been used to purchase hotspots, modems and routers so schools can keep their teachers and students connected. More than $5.1 billion in funding was requested during the initial request window, but the members of the Education and Libraries Network Coalitions say more is needed to ensure ongoing student success.
If passed, these bills will impact schools, libraries, rural towns and underserved urban communities. The funding will bring affordability and equity to a commodity that’s become critical to productivity, especially for students. As one library system IT Director put it, “It’s like electricity. It’s become a utility that everyone needs to be effective in their daily lives.”
Cost should not be a barrier to internet access. In fact, Mobile Citizen was founded on the premise that high-quality, accessible internet contributes to an engaged public and a more equitable society. That’s why we offer affordable pricing on mobile internet devices and unlimited data plans exclusively to schools, libraries, nonprofits, and social welfare agencies nationwide. To learn more, contact our experts in the Mobile Citizen Customer Service Center at 877-216-9603.