WASHINGTON—Being stuck at home is bad enough. Now imagine being stuck at home without the internet.
That is the problem for tens of millions of Americans who don’t have high-speed internet at home, severely limiting their ability to work, take classes or consult a doctor as the nation hunkers down for the coronavirus pandemic.
Lawmakers are discussing how to address that problem in massive spending bills moving on Capitol Hill, according to Congressional aides, Federal Communications Commission officials and industry executives.
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On Saturday, Senate leaders decided against including a large amount of money for broadband infrastructure in a trillion-dollar stimulus bill being advanced right now. Unless House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) tries to add broadband funding to the Senate measure, proponents of the broadband incentives will try to add measures to a fourth stimulus package in the next few weeks or months.
The Senate’s stimulus bill would include a smaller amount of funding to pay to deploy mobile hot spots around the country.
If a larger broadband plan is eventually adopted, the proposals could provide an influx of cash to telecom companies including
One idea with broad support: New federal funding for equipment to help Americans communicate with teachers, doctors or colleagues from home, such as Wi-Fi hot-spot devices, laptops and mobile phones, some of these people said.
Other ideas have longer time horizons, aiming to stimulate the economy over the coming months, such as fast-tracking funds to build high-speed internet broadband in rural areas.
A spokeswoman for Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee says the GOP supports funding broadband devices but cautioned against bigger-ticket spending items that could take months to roll out: “We want policy decisions that have an immediate impact.”
Democrats are pushing to include broadband funding in any stimulus law, including funding for network infrastructure and boosts to federal programs that subsidize broadband equipment for schools and people with low incomes, a House Democratic aide said. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.), without offering specifics, has said Democrats want to fund remote learning.
The need is acute in places like Middletown, Ohio, where Friday, March 13, was the last day students were in class.
Middletown City School District Superintendent Marlon Styles estimates about 20% of the district’s 6,400 students don’t have access to Wi-Fi or a device they can use for remote learning, creating a situation where some students are receiving assignments online and others are falling behind.
Some teachers have taken to mailing paper instructional materials to students in need, he said.
Ohio schools are closed until at least early April, and possibly longer.
“We need devices if we are going to solve this problem,” he said. Families in poverty also need access to a network, even though broadband providers are offering discounted plans, he said. “Families in a high-poverty area can’t afford additional expenditures. The free option is what’s desperately needed.”
The FCC recently loosened its rules to allow broadband providers to offer free equipment and services to schools, libraries and hospitals, but it isn’t clear how many companies will take advantage of the new flexibility.
Kajeet Inc., a Virginia-based firm that contracts with schools to provide hardware and software for online learning, has heard from hundreds of districts asking for help in the last two weeks, said Chief Executive Daniel Neal.
The company is lobbying Congress to make federal dollars available to support the demand for devices for remote schooling, which Mr. Neal said will soon outstrip supply unless his company starts placing orders. “Our biggest challenge right now is, where do I find $100 million to convince certain factories in the other part of the world to build all the stuff we need?” said Mr. Neal in an interview. “Our company does not have that capacity.”
AT&T and Verizon Communications have been pushing to secure funding, according to lobbyists working for the companies.
Industry lobbyists have asked lawmakers to fund hot-spot devices and mobile phones for families and teachers.
Lawmakers are also discussing ways to increase the availability of Lifeline, a federal subsidy for poor people to get mobile-phone plans, a House Democratic aide said.
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The FCC has suggested two crisis-response ideas to Congress, according to an official at the agency. One would allow the agency to pay for devices for hospitals to check in with patients remotely, anticipating that the spread of the virus may overwhelm their capacity to keep patients on site. Another would make a new appropriation so that the agency could fund remote learning devices.
FCC Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Starks, the two Democrats on the five-member commission, have urged the Republican-led agency to immediately tap an existing FCC program for classroom connectivity, known as E-Rate, to pay for devices schools need for home learning.
There is debate about whether the E-Rate program can legally be used to fund equipment used off campus. Republicans at the FCC appear wary of using the funds for that purpose without direction from Congress.
“We don’t have the authority to waive the statute. That’s something Congress can do,” FCC Commissioner Mike O’Rielly, a Republican, said Tuesday during an online discussion hosted by the nonprofit New America.
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