The $2 trillion covid-19 stimulus bill is not a broadband bill, but it helps. A little

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Salinas windmill cell site

Update, 27 March 2020: president Trump signed the bill, it’s a done deal.

Update, 27 March 2020: the U.S. house of representatives approved the bill, it now goes to president Trump.

A vote on the $2 trillion federal covid–19 stimulus bill is expected in the U.S. house of representatives later today, and president Trump says he’ll sign it immediately. I also found the full text of the bill, as published by the U.S. senate’s appropriations committee. Assuming it’s really the final-final version, it’s not going to do very much at all to fill the broadband gaps that separate many people, particularly in California’s rural counties, from the online business, education, health, information and entertainment services that we now rely on.

But there are a couple of sparks of good broadband news in the text. In the short term, it authorises the federal veterans affairs department to…

Enter into short-term agreements or contracts with telecommunications companies to provide temporary, complimentary or subsidized, fixed and mobile broadband services for the purposes of providing expanded mental health services to isolated veterans through telehealth or VA Video Connect.

It also pumps $50 million into grants to libraries (and museums) for “digital network access”, “internet accessible devices” and “technical support”, and waives matching fund requirements.

The bill doesn’t address the Federal Communications Commission’s E-rate program. There’s no extra money and no prescribed changes in eligibility, or allowed uses of existing funds.

The language that pumps an extra $200 million into the FCC’s telehealth subsidy program is flexible, though. The FCC will have a lot of discretion regarding how it spends the money. There are no significant changes to the Rural Utilities Service’s (RUS) ReConnect broadband infrastructure grant and loan program or its telehealth and distance learning subsidies, except of course for the extra money – $100 million for ReConnect and $25 million for telehealth/distance learning.

Long term, the bill will speed up the migration of health care and other essential services to online platforms. Legacy rules and bureaucratic inertia are a barrier to increased adoption of telehealth technology, so in several places the bill has language that, as one section puts it, is aimed at “encouraging use of telecommunications systems for home health services furnished during emergency period”. It also redefines the mission of some federal telehealth programs as, for example, funding “evidence-based projects that utilise telehealth technologies” instead of “projects to demonstrate how telehealth technologies can be used”.

In other words, stop screwing around with pilots and just go live.