Even by Washington, D.C. standards, $2 trillion is a lot of money. By those same standards, though, $325 million isn’t much and that appears to be the extent of direct broadband assistance in the $2 trillion covid–19 “stimulus” bill approved by the U.S. senate late last night. If there’s indirect broadband help, it’s buried in the bill’s yet-to-be-published text.
According to a summary obtained by Bloomberg Law yesterday, the bill adds $100 million to a broadband infrastructure program run by the federal agriculture department’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS), as well as $200 million to the Federal Communications Commission’s telehealth subsidy kitty and $25 million for a telehealth and distance learning program, also managed by RUS. That’s not the final word, of course. We’ll have to wait for the full text of the bill to surface before we know what’s in it.
There’s no extra money for the FCC’s E-rate program, which pays for broadband service to schools and libraries. That’s a disappointment for many, but I’ll reserve judgement until I see the actual bill. If, as has been urged, it loosens restrictions on how the money that’s already in the program can be spent, then it’ll be an immediate win. Under current rules, infrastructure and bandwidth bought through the E-rate program can’t be opened up to the public. Just taking that restriction off, even temporarily, could help close the gap between broadband haves in California’s urban areas and the have nots in rural communities. If it doesn’t do at least that much then, yeah, it’s a disappointment.
The RUS infrastructure money will go into the ReConnect program, which pays for new broadband infrastructure in rural areas. It probably won’t be much help to California, though. It’s designed for the business models and demographics of the midwest and south, and so far hasn’t funded any systems here. But it’ll help the people it’ll help, and to that extent it’s well timed. The application deadline for the current round of grants is next Tuesday, 31 March 2020, which means there should be plenty of project proposals that can be funded immediately.
The next step for the bill is the U.S. house of representatives.