The second Coronavirus response package, which Congress passed and the President signed in late December 2020, provides relief and targeted support to many segments of our national economy, including funds for broadband internet access service. Three sections are of particular importance to rural telecom carriers: Section 903 – FCC COVID-19 Telehealth program; Section 904 – Benefit for Broadband Service During Emergency Period Relating to COVID-19; and Section 905 – Grants for Broadband Connectivity.  JSI will be holding webinars on these funding opportunities once the rules have been established and we are available now to assist with applications and other required filings.

Companies seeking funding for broadband infrastructure will want to be on the lookout in the coming weeks for more information about the Section 905 – Grants for Broadband Activity, which will be administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). In conjunction with releasing these details, NTIA will open its 90-day grant application window. As well, JSI clients hoping to provide discounted broadband service and internet devices, such as computers and tablets for qualifying low-income households, will benefit from the Section 904 – Benefit for Broadband Service. Comments on the rules for this program are currently being sought.  Those that serve Tribal lands should particularly be aware of specific funding that applies to those areas in both the NTIA grant program and the Benefit for Broadband Service programs.

In Section 903, Congress directs an additional $250M to the FCC’s Telehealth program that was authorized under the CARES Act. The FCC released a Public Notice (DA 21-14) seeking comment on this program. Comments are due on January 19. Rural carriers that have facilities in their areas that receive Telehealth funds from the CARES Act should be aware that the FCC is seeking comment on whether and how the FCC should target funding to health care providers in “hardest hit” areas of the nation. The second relief package also requires that these funds be awarded to all 50 states and the District of Columbia (regrettably without any mention of the various U.S. Territories) and the FCC seeks comment on how to ensure that awards are so distributed throughout the 50 states and D.C.

Section 904 establishes a broadband benefit program and directs $3.2B to provide households up to $50 ($75 for Tribal lands’ households) per month for broadband service and a subsidy for internet devices, such as computers and tablets. The FCC governs this program and is soliciting comments, which are due January 25. The legislation directs the FCC to allow all broadband providers that were offering broadband service as of December 1, 2020, to participate, including those providers that are not eligible telecommunications carriers (ETCs). The FCC seeks comments on several issues related to how providers will qualify and how funds will be distributed and accounted for. The FCC proposes that rural carriers seeking to participate in this program will need to notify USAC of their intent to participate. In addition to households that participate in the FCC’s Lifeline program, this expands the eligibility of households to include households where one member receives school lunch and breakfast benefits; has experienced a substantial loss of income since February 29, 2020; has received a Pell Grant; or meets a broadband provider’s existing low-income COVID-19 program. As the FCC finalizes rules in this program, we encourage rural carriers to participate in the program. Given the expanded eligibility, as well as the expanded list of possible participating providers, JSI observes there will be high demand for this program. JSI will keep you notified on the comments and reply comments that will shape the final rules for this program.

Lastly, Section 905 directs NTIA to establish two grant programs. The first is to support broadband on Tribal lands with $1B. The second program is $300M designed to support broadband infrastructure deployment to areas lacking broadband. These grants will be issued to qualifying partnerships between state and local governments, tribal governments, and fixed broadband providers. NTIA has not yet released information regarding these programs.  Section 905 requires NTIA to issue a notice containing the application requirements no sooner than January 27 and no later than February 25 with the application window opening that day and ending 90 days later.

If you are interested in learning more about these programs as soon as the final rules are released, we encourage you to let us know by emailing Janee Devis, and, in addition to receiving our e-Lerts and webinar announcements, one of our team members will personally contact you to make sure that you are aware of critical deadlines and program requirements.  If you have any questions about the programs or would like our assistance in applying for the programs, please contact Lans Chase at 770-569-2105, Douglas Meredith at 801-294-4576, or John Kuykendall at 301-459-7590.