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Volume XI, Number 217

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Overview of Broadband Funding Opportunities in the COVID-19 Relief Act

Enacted on December 27, 2020 as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (“Act”) establishes or re-appropriates a number of significant broadband-related support programs.[1]   Reflecting the urgency of the COVID-19 situation, the Act calls for unusually prompt implementation by the administering agencies. For example, solicitations of applications for the broadband Infrastructure Deployment Grants and Tribal Broadband Connectivity Grants must be issued by the Department of Commerce within 60 days of the Act’s enactment.

While the details of participation are generally not yet known, interested broadband service providers – and potential partners – should take steps immediately to explore how to make the most of one or more of these opportunities, including how to structure a potential project and present a compelling case for funding, or how to qualify for a program and verify eligible customers.

The various programs include the following, each discussed in greater detail below:

  • Broadband Infrastructure Deployment Grants (NTIA):  $300 million grant program for broadband projects by “covered partnerships” in eligible service areas. The term “covered partnership” is defined to mean (a) a State or one or more political subdivisions, and (b) a provider of fixed broadband service.

  • Tribal Broadband Connectivity Grants (NTIA):  $1 billion grant program for broadband infrastructure deployment, broadband affordability programs, distance learning, telehealth, and broadband adoption activities on Tribal land.

  • Emergency Broadband Benefit Program (FCC):  $3.2 billion for an Emergency Broadband Benefit Program providing a reimbursement subsidy for the provision of broadband service and associated equipment to qualified households in the form of a monthly discount not to exceed $50 ($75 for an eligible household on Tribal land).

  • Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program (NTIA): $285 million for grants to minority institutions, organizations, and consortia to support broadband development and adoption.

  • COVID-19 Telehealth Program (FCC): An additional $250 million to the existing FCC Telehealth Program.

  • Amendments to Secure and Trusted Networks Reimbursement Program (“Rip and Replace”): $1.9 billion allocated to fully fund the program. Adopted various amendments relating to reimbursement for providers obligated to remove and replace covered communications equipment.

BROADBAND INFRASTRUCTURE DEPLOYMENT GRANTS ($300 million, NTIA)

Section 905(d) of the Act allocates $300 million for a Broadband Infrastructure Program to be administered by the U.S. Department of Commerce (i.e., NTIA). Grants are to be made on a competitive basis “to covered partnerships for covered broadband projects” in “eligible service areas.”

“Covered partnerships.” Notably, program eligibility is limited to “covered partnerships,” defined as: “(a) a State, or 1 or more political subdivisions of a State; and (b) a provider of fixed broadband service.”[2]

“Covered broadband project.” The program supports “covered broadband projects,” defined as “a competitively and technologically neutral project for the deployment of fixed broadband service that provides qualifying broadband service in an eligible service area.”[3] Grant funds must be awarded based on the following, in decreasing order of priority:

(A) Covered broadband projects designed to provide broadband service to the greatest number of households in an eligible service area.

(B) Covered broadband projects designed to provide broadband service in an eligible service area that is wholly within any area other than— (i) a county, city, or town that has a population of more than 50,000 inhabitants; and (ii) the urbanized area contiguous and adjacent to a city or town described in clause (i).

(C) Covered broadband projects that are the most cost-effective, prioritizing such projects in areas that are the most rural.

(D) Covered broadband projects designed to provide broadband service with a download speed of not less than 100 megabits per second and an upload speed of not less than 20 megabits per second.[4]

“Eligible service area.” Grants are available for projects in “eligible service areas,” defined to mean “a census block in which broadband service is not available at 1 or more households or businesses in the census block,” based on FCC broadband maps or other information available to the Dept. of Commerce. 

Implementation timeframe. The Act requires the Dept. of Commerce to issue a notice within 60 days of the Act’s enactment inviting applications and including detailed program information.  The Department must act on applications within 90 days of receipt.

Additional information.

  • Grant funds must be expended within one year of award.

  • The program requires applicants to disclose any other federal support received for the provision of broadband service (such as ReConnect, RDOF, CAF II, etc.) in the proposed service areas, suggesting that award of program grants to such recipients will be prohibited, or at least disfavored. 

  • Applicants may only submit a single application as between the Broadband Infrastructure Grant program and the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Grant program.

TRIBAL BROADBAND CONNECTIVITY GRANTS ($1 billion, NTIA)

Section 905(c) of the Act allocates $1 billion for a Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program, to be administered by the U.S. Department of Commerce (NTIA). Grant funds will be made available “to eligible entities and expand access to and adoption of (A) broadband service on Tribal land; or (B) remote learning, telework, or telehealth resources during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“Eligible entity.” The term “eligible entity” is defined to mean:

"(A) a Tribal Government;

(B) a Tribal College or University;

(C) the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands on behalf

of the Native Hawaiian Community, including Native

Hawaiian Education Programs;

(D) a Tribal organization; or

(E) a Native Corporation.”[5]

Use of subgrantees. An eligible entity may enter into a contract with a non-Tribal entity as part of its use of grant funds.

Eligible uses. Grant funds under the Tribal program may be used for the following:

“(A) broadband infrastructure deployment, including

support for the establishment of carrier-neutral submarine

cable landing stations;

(B) affordable broadband programs, including—(i) providing free or reduced-cost broadband service; and (ii) preventing disconnection of existing broadband

service;

(C) distance learning;

(D) telehealth;

(E) digital inclusion efforts; and

(F) broadband adoption activities.”[6]

Prioritization for infrastructure projects to unserved households. “In using grant funds … for new construction of broadband infrastructure, an eligible entity shall prioritize projects that deploy broadband infrastructure to unserved households.”[7] (Note that this factor applies only to the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program and not the Broadband Infrastructure Program.)

Implementation. As with the Broadband Infrastructure Deployment Grant program, the Act requires the Department of Commerce to issue a notice within 60 days of the Act’s enactment setting forth detailed program requirements and inviting applications for the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Grants. The Department must act on submitted applications within 90 days of receipt.

Additional information.

  • Grant funds must be expended within one year of receipt, although an extension is possible in the case of broadband infrastructure projects.[8]

  • No duplication of funding. The Act calls for the Department of Commerce to consult with the FCC “to prevent duplication of funding.” This suggests that recipients of funding under RDOF, CAF II and other support mechanisms may not be eligible for grants under the program. Also, an eligible entity or covered partnership may submit only one application, as between the Broadband Infrastructure and Tribal Broadband Connectivity grant programs. However, the Act also states that the use of grant funds under either program “shall not impact the eligibility of, or otherwise disadvantage” the grant recipient “with respect to participation in any other Federal broadband programs.”[9]

EMERGENCY BROADBAND BENEFIT PROGRAM ($3.2 billion, FCC/USAC)

Section 904 of the Act establishes a $3.2 billion fund for an Emergency Broadband Benefit Program to be administered by the FCC (likely through USAC). It will provide a reimbursement subsidy in the form of “a monthly discount for an eligible household applied to the actual amount charged to such household, which shall be no more than the standard rate for an internet service offering and associated equipment,” not to exceed $50 ($75 for an eligible household on Tribal land).[10]  

The program also enables participating service providers to receive reimbursement of up to $100 for providing eligible households with a single connected device, if the charge to the household is more than $10 but less than $50.

“Eligible household.” The program is available to eligible households demonstrating low income, including those where at least one member of the household is eligible for the National School Lunch Program, has experienced a substantial loss of income since February 29, 2020, has a received a federal Pell Grant, is eligible for the federal Lifeline program, or meets a participating provider’s existing low-income or COVID-19 program.[11]

Service provider reimbursement. Participating service providers will be reimbursed in an amount equal to the Emergency Broadband Benefit provided.

Service provider participation. Service provider participation in the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program is voluntary. Notably, the Act provides that designation as an Eligible Telecommunications Carrier (ETC) is not required. The FCC is directed to establish “an expedited process” to approve participating providers that are not ETCs. In addition, the FCC “shall automatically approve as a participating provider a broadband provider that has an established [Covid-19 support] program as of April 1, 2020, that is widely available and offers internet service offerings to eligible households and maintains verification processes that are sufficient to avoid fraud, waste, and abuse.”[12]

FCC Public Notice. The Act requires the FCC to promulgate regulations to implement the program within 60 days after its enactment and directs the FCC to undertake a comment and reply period. On January 4, 2021, the FCC issued a Public Notice seeking input on a wide range of programmatic options, with initial comments due January 25 and reply comments due February 16.[13] 

CONNECTING MINORITY COMMUNITIES PILOT PROGRAM ($285 million, NTIA)

Section 902 of the Act establishes and allocates $285 million for a “Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program.” The Pilot Program will provide grants to eligible recipients in anchor communities for the purchase of broadband service or any eligible equipment, to hire and train IT personnel, and for minority education and operation of minority businesses and organization. Section 902 also requires the creation of a new Office of Minority Broadband Initiatives within NTIA.

Eligible recipients. An “eligible recipient” for the Pilot Program grants includes the following:

  • Historically Black college or university;

  • Tribal College or University;

  • a Minority-serving institution, or

  • a consortium led by an HBCU, a Tribal College or Minority-serving institution, that also includes:

    • a minority business enterprise or

    • a 501(c)(3) organization exempt under 501(a) of the Internal Revenue Code.

Anchor community. The term “anchor community” is defined to mean any area that “(i) ... is not more than 15 miles from a historically Black college or university, a Tribal College or University, or a Minority-serving institution; and (ii) has an estimated median annual household income of not more than 250 percent of the poverty line…”[14]

Implementation timeframe. The Department of Commerce is directed to promulgate rules implementing the Pilot Program within 45 days after the enactment of the Act.  

FCC COVID-19 TELEHEALTH PROGRAM ($250 million, FCC)

Section 903 of the Act appropriates an additional $249,950,000 for the COVID-19 Telehealth Program, an existing program administered by the FCC. The Act directs the FCC to seek comments on metrics for applications under the program, directs that funds be distributed equitably (i.e., not fewer than one applicant in each State and District of Columbia), and directs the FCC to allow an applicant who submitted an application during previous Telehealth Program funding rounds to update or amend their application. 

AMENDMENTS TO THE SECURE AND TRUSTED COMMUNICATIONS NETWORK REIMBURSEMENT PROGRAM  (aka “Rip and Replace”)

Section 901 of the Act allocates $1.9 billion to fully fund the reimbursement program associated with providers who must remove communications equipment manufactured by certain foreign entities, specifically Huawei and ZTE.[15] It also establishes a prioritization for allocation of the funds: (1) applicants that have 2 million or fewer customers; (2) applicants that are accredited public or private non-commercial educational institutions providing their own facilities-based educational broadband service; (3) any remaining approved applicants.

 


[1]              The $2.3 trillion Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, Pub. L. 116-260, was signed into law by President Trump on December 27, 2020.

[2]              Section 904(a)(5).

[3]              Section 904(a)(4).

[4]              Section 904(d)(4).

[5]              Section 905(a)(8).

[6]              Section 905(c)(5).

[7]              Section 905(c)(8).

[8]              Section 905(b)(4)(B)(ii).

[9]              Section 905(g).

[10]             Section 904(a)(7).

[11]             Section 904(a)(6).

[12]             Section 904(d)(B).

[13]             Wireline Competition Bureau Seeks Comment on Emergency Broadband Connectivity Fund Assistance, WC Docket No. 20-445, Public Notice, DA 21-6, released January 4, 2021.

[14]             Section 902(a)(1).

[15]             See the Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Act of 2019 (47 U.S.C. § 1601 et seq.).

© 2021 Keller and Heckman LLPNational Law Review, Volume XI, Number 19
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About this Author

Casey Lide Communication Attorney Keller & Heckman Washington, DC
Partner

Casey Lide represents clients on a broad range of communications matters including telecommunications, cable television, broadband Internet access service, wireless communications, right-of-way management, pole and conduit attachments, and barriers to community broadband initiatives.

Casey counsels public- and private-sector clients on contract drafting and negotiation matters, including fiber optic IRUs and leases, easements, franchises, attachment agreements, ISP service agreements, interconnection and collocation agreements, strategic MoUs and others.   

He collaborates...

202-434-4186
Law Graduate

Jason Chun is a Law Graduate with our Telecommunications practice (not yet licensed to practice law as he awaits admittance under the D.C. Bar's Emergency Examination Waiver).

202-434-4491
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