Government Relations Update June 2020
House Passes Infrastructure Bill
On July 1, the House of Representatives passed a major infrastructure package by a vote of 233 to 188. The Moving Forward Act (H.R. 2), is a comprehensive $2.5 trillion infrastructure investment plan advanced by House Democrats. The bill includes $100 billion to support broadband delivery to unserved and underserved communities in rural, suburban, and urban areas.
The bill provides $80 billion of these funds for a new program at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that will include a focus on connecting unserved anchor institutions among its priorities. Additionally, the bill makes clear that this program will be "separate from any universal service program" and "does not require funding recipients to be designated as eligible telecommunications carriers," potentially opening the door to participation by R&E networks.
An additional $5 billion will be directed to support a new Broadband Infrastructure Finance and Innovation (BIFIA) program at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). The BIFIA Program would fund a variety of broadband projects, including those that "provide access or improved access to broadband service to schools, libraries, medical and healthcare providers, community colleges and other institutions of higher education, museums, religious organizations, and other community support organizations and entities to facilitate greater use of broadband service by or through such organizations." Funding under this program would take the form of loans, loan guarantees, and lines of credit.
The bill also would create a new Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth at NTIA, which would oversee two new digital equity grant programs aimed at improving digital literacy in communities across the nation to allow citizens to take full advantage of the benefits provided by expanded broadband access. The first program, the State Digital Equity Capacity Grant Program, would provide resources to state governments to assist their communities in advancing digital equity initiatives. States initially would be required to develop State Digital Equity Plans, which the bill provides $60 million to support. Once the plans are in place, states will be eligible to apply for grants from NTIA for execution of their efforts, for which $625 million would be available. The second grant opportunity, the Digital Equity Competitive Grant Program, would be open directly to local governments, tribal governments, non-profits, educational entities, anchor institutions, and others to undertake their own digital inclusion activities. The bill appropriates $625 million for distribution through this program.
Additionally, the bill provides $9 billion to the FCC to partially reimburse service providers that extend price reductions for broadband service costs to households participating in the Lifeline program, free/reduced school lunch, or recently unemployed.
While this legislation is expected to pass on largely party lines, its future in the Senate remains unclear, as Senate Republicans have expressed skepticism in recent weeks over the prospects of supporting any major infrastructure legislation this year.
30 Higher Education Organizations Send Letter to Congress Supporting R&E Networks
On June 5, 30 organizations representing the interests of the higher education community sent a letter to leadership in the House and Senate, as well as to the leaders of several committees in both chambers, advocating for increased support for R&E networks through federally funded broadband programs. These organizations included EDUCAUSE, the American Council on Education (ACE), and the Association of American Universities (AAU). The letter articulated the importance of R&E networks, particularly in light of the effects that COVID-19 has had on education and research-based response efforts. The organizations argued that Congress needs to take additional steps to provide support to R&E networks to "extend backbone and middle-mile networks in unserved and underserved areas; increase pandemic research connectivity; expand educational wireless systems and wireless services; and meet equipment and capacity needs."