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The Covid-19 crisis is highlighting the importance of broadband connectivity for all Americans. High capacity broadband service enables essential connectivity supporting telemedicine, distance education, telework, e-commerce, and essential social interactivity. During this pandemic, it is more important than ever that critical broadband services are available to all Americans. Primarily through programs administered by the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) and the Rural Utilities Service (“RUS”), the Federal government has long focused to bring internet access to rural America. To respond to the current health emergency and help restore economic activity, Congress has made available additional broadband funding that includes enhanced telehealth capabilities. Below is a summary of longstanding, newly established, and prospective federal initiatives to promote broadband connectivity.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (“CARES ACT”) 

The CARES Act became law on March 27, 2020. The main goal of the legislation is to stimulate the economy and assist those affected by the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic. There are several broadband funding initiatives included in the law.

FCC Telehealth Funding

The CARES Act appropriated $200 million to the FCC for telehealth purposes. Shortly after passage of the bill, the Commission adopted an Order establishing the COVID-19 Telehealth Program. This program aims to “help eligible health care providers purchase telecommunications services, information services, and devices necessary to provide critical connected care services, whether for treatment of coronavirus or other health conditions during the coronavirus pandemic.” Eligible applicants are nonprofit and public health care providers eligible under section 254(h)(7)(B) of the Telecommunications Act:

  • post-secondary educational institutions offering health care instruction, teaching hospitals, and medical schools
  • community health centers or health centers providing health care to migrants
  • local health departments or agencies
  • community mental health centers
  • not-for-profit hospitals
  • rural health clinics
  • skilled nursing facilities
  • consortia of health care providers consisting of one or more entities falling into the first seven categories

Eligible services and devices include connected devices and equipment, voice and internet services, and other information services such as remote monitoring platforms and video communication platforms. The funding awarded can be used to fund services and devices for both providers and patients. Funding is derived from a separate appropriation, not Universal Service Fund (“USF”) monies. The Commission does not anticipate awarding more than $1 million to any single applicant.

The initial wave of funding under the program includes:

  • Grady Memorial Hospital, Atlanta, GA – $727,747 to implement telehealth video visits, virtual check-ins, remote patient monitoring, and e-visits to patient’s hospital rooms
  • Hudson River HealthCare, Peekskill, NY – $753,367 for telehealth services to expand its frontline COVID-19 testing and treatment programs serving a large volume of low-income, uninsured, and/or underinsured patients throughout southeastern New York State
  • Mount Sinai Health System, New York City – $312,500 for telehealth devices and services to geriatric and palliative patients who are at high risk for COVID-19
  • Neighborhood Health Care, Cleveland, OH – $244,282 to provide telemedicine, connected devices, and remote patient monitoring to patients and families impacted by COVID-19 in Cleveland’s West Side neighborhoods, targeting low-income patients
  • Ochsner Clinic Foundation, New Orleans, LA – $1,000,000 for telehealth services and devices to serve high-risk patients and vulnerable populations in Louisiana and Mississippi
  • UPMC Children’s Hospital, Pittsburgh, PA – $192,500 to provide telehealth services to children who have received organ transplants and are thus immune compromised and at high risk for COVID-19

Although not directly related to the new legislation, the FCC’s Order also adopted a longer-term Connected Care Pilot Program, making available up to $100 million of USF support. The program will help defray costs health care providers incur in providing connected care services with an emphasis on services for low-income Americans and veterans. Eligible applicants are the same as those for the COVID-19 Telehealth Program.

RUS Distance Learning and Telemedicine

The CARES Act appropriated $25 million for the USDA’s Distance Learning and Telemedicine Program. This program helps rural communities by funding connectivity to combat the effects of remoteness and low population density. Program funds may be used for acquisition of broadband facilities including audio/video equipment, computer hardware, network components, and software. Non-profits, for profit businesses, most state and local governments, Federally Recognized Tribes, and a consortium of these entities are eligible. The CARES Act extended the program’s application window to July 13, 2020.

RUS Broadband Deployment Pilot Program (“ReConnect”)

The CARES Act also appropriated an additional $100 million to the RUS Rural Connect Pilot Program (“ReConnect”). This program provides funding to entities seeking to deploy broadband in rural areas. In order to be eligible, a project must serve an area in which 90% of the households lack access to internet service with speeds of at least 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload. Eligibility is similar to the Distance Learning and Telemedicine Program.

This is a supplement to the December 12, 2019, ReConnect Funding Opportunity Announcement (“FOA”) for which the second-round application filing window closed earlier this month. The additional funding remains available until September 30, 2021. The Agency will establish a set-aside for the $100 million for priority processing for applicants that submitted grant applications during the first round of funding. For the application to be eligible for priority processing, the round one application must have been unsuccessful due to there being limited access to broadband in the proposed service area. Applicants were required to reapply during the second round of finding.

Department of Veterans Affairs Telehealth Funding

In addition to FCC and RUS programs, the CARES Act also provided $17.2 billion for the Veterans Health Administration, authorizing the VA to use these funds to enter into short-term contracts with telecom providers to deliver free or subsidized support for mental health services through telehealth connections or VA’s Video Connect Service.

Institute of Museums and Library Services

The CARES Act also appropriates $50 million for the Institute of Museums and Library Services (IMLS) to be spent by September 30, 2021. The first phase of funding will be allocated to all 50 states, D.C., and the U.S. territories based on population. States and territories will be able to “use the funds to expand digital network access, purchase internet accessible devices, and provide technical support services to citizens to address digital inclusion efforts and related technical support”. Funds should be prioritized based on poverty/Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“SNAP”), unemployment, and broadband availability.

Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability (“DATA)” Act Accurate broadband data is critical to the application and funding process for broadband grants. On March 23, 2020, the DATA Act became law. This new law requires the FCC to issue final rules regarding the collection and dissemination of granular broadband service availability data within six months. The goal is to establish a “Broadband Serviceable Location Fabric,” which will facilitate the reporting of broadband service availability data.

Under the law, the Commission must establish rules that require biannual collection and dissemination of granular data showing the availability and quality of broadband internet access service. This data will be used to compile coverage maps. The basis for the coverage maps will be the Broadband Serviceable Location Fabric. This will be a dataset of all locations in the country where fixed broadband internet access service can be installed. Within the rules, the Commission must include uniform standards for reporting broadband internet access service data from various service providers. Terrestrial fixed, fixed wireless, and satellite broadband internet access service providers must provide documents showing where they have built out broadband network infrastructure and where they could provide service.

In 2019, the Commission initiated a proceeding to establish improved broadband data collection and reporting procedures, Digital Opportunity Data Collection (“DODC”) (WC Docket No. 19-195). In a Second Notice of Proposed Rulemaking released last August, the Commission sought comment on many subjects included in the Broadband DATA Act. It is likely the Commission will adopt a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to align the DODC proceeding with the requirements mandated by the Broadband DATA Act.

Conclusion

COVID -19 has highlighted the nation’s need for increased broadband connectivity in health care, education, social interaction, and commerce. While broadband can bring people together for these critical interactions, all Americans must have access to the internet for it to be effective. These new programs and broadband reporting processes all look to promote high speed broadband connectivity throughout underserved sectors of the economy.