As millions of American workers, students, and patients stay home to help combat the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act includes funding for the transition to remote life among its many relief provisions. With specific funding for broadband connections, distance learning, telehealth, and telework, the CARES Act recognizes the pressing need for people to remain connected during this public health crisis.
The CARES Act allocates funds specifically to help rural communities connect to broadband internet, including $100 million to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utility Service (RUS) for its Reconnect Pilot Program, which provides grants for the costs of construction, improvement, or acquisition of facilities and equipment needed to provide broadband service in eligible rural areas.
In addition to providing additional funding to connect underserved populations to the Internet, the legislation appropriates specific funding for remote education, healthcare, and work:
- Provides the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) with $200 million to support efforts of health care providers to address COVID-19 by providing telecommunications services, information services, and devices necessary to enable the provision of telehealth services.
- Increases RUS’s Distance Learning, Telemedicine, and Broadband Program funding by $25 million, allowing the agency to provide additional grants to support rural communities’ access to telecommunications-enabled information, audio, and video equipment.
- Sets aside $180 million from the $127 billion increase in funding for the Department of Health and Human Services’ Public Health and Social Services Emergency Fund to expand services and capacity for rural hospitals, including telehealth.
- Provides that its $13.5 billion in Education Stabilization Funding, allocated to the states by formula, may be used to improve the use of technology to support distance education.
- Provides $2.15 billion to the Department of Veterans Affairs for information technology uses to support increased telework and telehealth, including the purchasing of devices and enhanced system bandwidth and support.
- Increases funding to virtually all federal departments to provide operational support, including for transitioning to telework.
The CARES Act is expected to pass the House and be signed by the President this week, but some members of Congress are eying more government support for broadband in future legislation.
The House Democrats released their own version of a coronavirus stimulus bill earlier this week, which included $2 billion for an “Emergency Connectivity Fund” through the FCC’s E-Rate program to support the Commission’s provision of “Wi-fi hotspots and connected devices to schools and libraries” to enable distance learning—a provision Senate Democrats fought unsuccessfully to add to the CARES Act. The House bill also included $1 billion for an Emergency Broadband Connectivity Fund, which would allow the FCC to reimburse network carriers for the cost of providing broadband service to low-income households.
The House bill previews policies lawmakers may attempt to include in future recovery legislation. Indeed, several Senate Democrats expressed frustration that more funding for connectivity to close the “homework gap” and ensure low-income students have access to high-speed Internet was not included in the CARES Act, and they committed to supporting broadband funding in future COVID-19 relief packages.
For additional information on business considerations in response to the coronavirus outbreak, please see Covington’s COVID-19 Legal and Business Toolkit.