CARES Act Largely Bypasses Tech Funding and Issues

On March 27, President Donald Trump signed into law the “Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act” (CARES Act) (P.L. 116-136), the third stimulus package in the last month, that could cost $2.5 trillion, or even more, once all the spending is accounted for. There are provisions in the package loosening restrictions and increasing funding for telehealth and telework as the demand for both have skyrocketed during the COVID-19 crisis.

There is also additional funding to address cybersecurity issues. Most notably, the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) was given an additional $400 million “to prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus, domestically or internationally, for the 2020 Federal election cycle.” The EAC was provided with $380 million and $       425 million, respectively in FY 2018 and 2019, to help states tighten the security of their election systems in large part because of Russian hacking and interference during the 2016 election. Additionally, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) was provided with an additional $9.1 million for FY 2020 and 2021 “to prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus, domestically or internationally, which shall be for support of interagency critical infrastructure coordination and related activities.”

Congress will likely pass additional COVID-19 relief and stimulus packages, and there are likely more funding and programmatic changes for technology programs coming. For example, House Democrats released the “The Take Responsibility for Workers and Families Act” (H.R.6379) last week when Senate Republicans, Senate Democrats, and the White House were negotiating the final version of the CARES Act. This $2.5 trillion package embodies many Democratic priorities, including technology policy. For example, the bill would provide CISA with $14.4 million to combat the effects of COVID-19, but that figure is likely the House Democrat’s preferred funding level as compared to the $9.1. million that was enacted as part of the CARES Act. And yet, the $4 billion House Democrats wanted for the EAC could augur significantly more funding for the agency to parcel out to states so they can improve and better secure their election systems.

However, the bill would provide $3 billion for the Technology Modernization Fund (TMF), a program that set up a revolving fund in the General Services Administration (GSA) to lend funds to agencies to refresh and replace dated information technology, especially legacy systems. In FY 2020, the Trump Administration asked for $150 million for the program but received only $25 million.

Broadband and 5G could both see additional funding. House Democrats allocated $25 million in extra funding for the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS) for “Distance Learning, Telemedicine, and Broadband Program.” The first draft of the bill included $2 billion for a new Emergency Connectivity Fund to be established and administered by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and the agency would also receive $1 billion for an “Emergency Broadband Connectivity Fund.” And, there are additional provisions as detailed in a section-by-section summary prepared by the Democratic staff of the House Energy and Commerce Committee:

  • Section 102. Anti-Price Gouging During COVID-19 Emergency. This section provides the Federal Trade Commission and State attorneys general the authority to seek civil penalties from individuals and companies engaging in price gouging of goods and services during the COVID- 19 public health emergency.
  • Section 201. Broadband Hotspots and Connected Devices for Schools and Libraries During COVID-19 Emergency. This section authorizes increased funding and provides flexibility to the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) E-Rate program to enable schools and libraries, including tribal schools and libraries, to offer broadband hotspots and connected devices to facilitate distance learning and connectivity during the COVID-19 public health emergency.
  • Section 301. Expansion of Low-Income Broadband Subsidies During COVID-19 Emergency. This section authorizes increased funding and provides flexibility for the FCC’s Lifeline program to expand access to broadband for low-income Americans during the COVID- 19 public health emergency.
  • Section 401. Telecommunications Consumer Protections During COVID-19 Emergency.
  • This section makes certain practices, including the stopping of telephone or broadband services, if a consumer is unable to pay for reasons related to the COVID-19 emergency, unlawful during the COVID-19 public health emergency.
  • Section 501. Public Safety Use of the T-Band. This section repeals the requirement on the FCC to reallocate and auction the T-Band (470-512 MHz), which allows first responders to continue the use of the band for their public safety communications.

House Democrats could also use existing legislation or proposals. In the technology space, In May 2019, the chair and most Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee introduced the “Leading Infrastructure For Tomorrow’s America Act” (H.R.2741), which was mostly about messaging and establishing a program to differentiate House Democrats from the White House and Senate Republicans. In a summary, Committee Democrats pointed to highlights of the package, most of which are technology-related:

Action to Combat the Climate Crisis and Protect Our Environment:

  • Over $33 billion for clean energy, including $4 billion to upgrade the U.S. electric grid to accommodate more renewable energy and make it more resilient. It also includes $4 billion for the expansion of renewable energy use, including $2.25 billion for the installation of solar panels in low-income and underserved communities. LIFT America also includes $23 billion for energy efficiency efforts – namely retrofitting and weatherizing buildings, including schools and homes, to ensure they produce fewer carbon emissions – and funding the nationwide deployment of more clean energy fuels.
  • $2.7 billion to spur the development of Smart Communities, including $850 million in technical assistance to help cities and counties integrate clean energy into their redevelopment efforts, and $1.4 billion to support the development of an electric vehicle (EV) charging network.

Expanding Access to Broadband Internet:

  • $40 billion for the deployment of secure and resilient high-speed broadband internet service to expand access for communities nationwide and bring broadband to 98 percent of the country.
  • $12 billion in grants for the implementation of Next Generation 9-1-1 services to make 9-1-1 service more accessible, effective, and resilient, and enable Americans to send text messages, images, or videos to 9-1-1 in times of emergency.
  • $5 billion in federal funding for low-interest financing of broadband infrastructure deployment through a new program that would allow eligible entities to apply for secured loans, lines of credit, or loan guarantees to finance broadband infrastructure build out projects.

Investing in America’s Health Infrastructure:

  • $2 billion in funding to reauthorize the Hill-Burton hospital infrastructure program, including targeted assistance to support cybersecurity in the health system.
  • $1 billion for Indian Health Service infrastructure projects to reduce health disparities in Indian Country.
  • $100 million to support state labs on the frontlines of fighting infectious diseases.
  • $100 million to establish a community-based care infrastructure program and to develop teaching health centers and mental health care centers.
  • $3.5 billion to improve public health infrastructure at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and at state, local, tribal and territorial health departments.

A first draft of the bill contained language requiring the Federal Reserve Bank to set up a system of ‘‘pass-through digital dollar wallets” so that direct payments from the U.S. government to Americans as a means of stimulating the economy. So, it is possible this new program or similar language gets included in a fourth COVID-19 stimulus bill.

Finally, there may be growing consensus that a surface transportation reauthorization could be passed that would be much larger than normal and most likely front-loaded in order to stimulate the economy. This week, President Donald Trump called for a $2 trillion-dollar package, which was echoed by House Democrats but It is possible that this bill could be the vehicle by which more broadband, 5G, or technology funding is pushed through existing programs or newly created programs.

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