COVID Relief Bill Includes $1 Billion for Tribal Broadband and $250 Million for FCC Telehealth Program in Provisions Sought By Cantwell

Bill represents first significant package to address Tribal broadband gap

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), the Ranking Member of the Senate Commerce Committee, today hailed the inclusion of key broadband priorities in the bipartisan Senate COVID-19 relief bill. This package provides money for broadband connectivity and is one of the only broadband packages to specifically address the critical connectivity needs of Tribes, including in the State of Washington. This package also provides additional funding to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for its COVID-19 Telehealth Program, which was first authorized under the CARES Act.

“This legislation that we’re going to be voting on includes $7 billion dollars for more broadband priorities; $1 billion dollars for connectivity issues for Tribal country,” Senator Cantwell said in a speech on the Senate floor this evening.

“Indian Country needs a lot of connectivity. So getting more broadband into those communities will be very helpful. The COVID package also contains money… for telehealth. Telehealth is a critical path during the COVID crisis to make sure that communities have the ability to get expert advice into our homes, into our communities, to connect people with information. So this telehealth grant is a very important program in the State of Washington.”

According to a report issued by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in May 2019, less than half of households in Indian Country have access to high-speed broadband service. This represents a nearly 27-point gap compared to non-Tribal rural areas. According to the same report, this gap only widens when compared to the country-wide average; 31 percent of households on Tribal lands lack access to high-speed broadband service compared to seven percent of Americans in non-Tribal areas. Cantwell has been outspoken about the need to close the Tribal digital divide.

Grants would be directed to Tribal governments to be used not only for broadband deployment on Tribal lands, but also for telehealth, distance learning, broadband affordability initiatives, and digital inclusion efforts. This $1 billion grant program for broadband connectivity would be distributed on an equitable basis among Tribes throughout the country and in Washington state.

Telehealth has been a critical way for providers to deliver quality medical care during the pandemic while keeping doctors and patients safe. The FCC’s COVID-19 Telehealth Program supports eligible health care providers by funding their telecommunications services, information services, and devices necessary to provide telehealth services. The program has previously provided close to $8 million dollars to health providers in the State of Washington for telehealth services during the pandemic, including at health centers in Tacoma, Yakima, Spokane, and Seattle. A full list can be found here. This national program will now receive an additional $250 million more from the broadband package.

In her floor speech, Cantwell also expressed disappointment that E-Rate funding was not included in the final bill: “I am disappointed that we did not include priorities in here for the E-Rate program to help close the homework gap… This legislation provides the ability to hotspots for people who may be going to college… and I think that that is a good idea. But we were prohibited from doing the same thing for students at the K-12 level. If [there is] one thing the pandemic has showed us, it’s that students are at home and need to be able to connect, to stay connected to their education schedule, to do their homework, and be part of the education system. So I hope that we will address this inequity in the bill in the future.”

Cantwell is a cosponsor of the Emergency Educational Connections Act, legislation that would appropriate $4 billion to be delivered through the E-Rate program to ensure all K-12 students have adequate home internet connectivity and devices during the pandemic. In March, and then again in September, Cantwell urged the FCC to use its existing authority and programs to facilitate at-home connectivity for students to keep up with remote schoolwork.

Video of Senator Cantwell’s floor speech on the broadband provisions in the COVID relief bill is available HERE and audio is available HERE.