How does the CARES Act Help Close the Digital Divide?

While the coronavirus pandemic has taught America about how entertaining puzzles and baking bread can be, it has also exposed how dependent we are on broadband and how far too many Americans – especially students – lack access at home. Two weeks ago, Congress passed historic legislation called the CARES Act to respond to the coronavirus pandemic. While much of the legislation was designed to help businesses and workers, as we highlighted a couple of weeks ago, Congress missed an opportunity to do more to close the digital divide. While the House Democratic bill included billions for broadband, hotspots, and low-income programs to get Americans connected, the original Republican Senate bill included very little. So, what exactly ended up in the final version? Here are a few highlights:

Telehealth Program
The CARES Act includes $185 million for the Health Resources and Services Administration to support rural critical access hospitals, rural tribal health, and telehealth programs. Many rural hospitals lack sufficient bed space and equipment to handle a large swell in very sick patients. In many cases, rural hospitals also have a limited number of physicians able to treat patients. Offering telehealth services can help extend support from doctors in other cities to treat patients – both those dealing with COVID-19 and those with other temporary or chronic illnesses that may pose a risk to those showing up in person at a hospital.

Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS)
A large number of Americans rely on local libraries for connectivity. A 2016 Pew Research Center survey found that “29% of library-using Americans 16 and older said they had gone to libraries to use computers, the internet, or a public Wi-Fi network.” As libraries have been largely closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress has provided resources to help them serve communities. The IMLS received $50 million to “expand digital network access, purchase internet accessible devices, and provide technical support services.” This funding will help expand the very successful library hotspot checkout programs, which allow patrons to check out a mobile hotspot like they would a book.

Department of Education
One of the most dramatic impacts of the COVID-19 crisis has been on education. Many colleges closed campuses and shifted classes online in response to the pandemic. The same is true for K-12 schools. However, many are unable to offer online classes because not all students have internet access at home. Congress provided the U.S. Department of Education $30.75 billion to address this disruption in education via grants to states. The funding can be used for a variety of response programs, including “planning for and coordinating during long-term closures, including for how to provide . . . technology for online learning to all students.” The Department of Education resources can also be used to purchase “educational technology (including hardware, software, and connectivity) for students who are served by the local educational agency that aids in regular and substantive educational interaction between students and their classroom instructors, including low-income students and students with disabilities, which may include assistive technology or adaptive equipment.”

Tribal Programs
Finally, the CARES Act also includes $453 million to the Bureau of Indian Affairs to support tribes during the pandemic. The funding can be used for a variety of activities, including purchasing information technology and improving teleworking capabilities. In addition, the CARES Act provides the Bureau of Indian Education $69 million to distribute for things like transportation and information technology. This funding, in combination with the FCC’s Rural Tribal Priority Window, in which the FCC is assigning Educational Broadband Services (EBS) radio frequencies suitable for affordable broadband deployment, is a one-two punch that may well have a significant impact on closing the tribal digital divide.

What’s Next?
Some Congressional leaders are already discussing up to $1 trillion in additional spending. Last Friday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in an interview “While I’m very much in favor of doing some things we need to do to meet the needs — clean water, more broadband, the rest of that — that may have to be for a bill beyond this.” Some speculated that Pelosi may be tying a new tranche of funding to a $760 billion infrastructure package supported by House Democrats. President Trump quickly took the bait, even tweeting his support for a fourth COVID-19 bill focused on infrastructure. Voqal will continue to track this new package when Congress returns to work on April 20.