Mapping Legislation Creates Risk for Schools, Libraries, and Healthcare Providers February 07, 2020
By John Windhausen Jr., executive director, SHLB Coalition
Congress is on the verge of passing legislation to improve broadband maps. Unfortunately, tucked inside the “Broadband DATA Act” is a provision that could unintentionally jeopardize broadband funding for schools, libraries, and healthcare providers.
The Broadband DATA Act is well-intended – we do need better maps to identify those unserved areas that need broadband funding so that everyone in the country can access affordable broadband. Unfortunately, both the Senate bill (S. 1822) and the House bill (H.R. 4229) say that the FCC “shall . . .use the maps . . . when making any new award of funding with respect to the deployment of broadband internet access service” [emphasis added]. The reference to “any new award of funding” is not limited to residential and small business consumers, so the FCC may have to use these maps when awarding E-rate and Rural Health Care (RHC) funding as well.
Of course, how the FCC would use these maps for E-rate and RHC funding is uncertain, but the provision opens the door to limiting E-rate and RHC funding only to those areas deemed “unserved”. If so, this would be a major change in policy that has been neither debated nor publicized. The E-rate and RHC programs are currently not restricted to “unserved” areas, nor should they be. The purpose of the E-rate program is to provide high-capacity broadband for schools and libraries all across America – in urban, suburban and rural areas. The Rural Health Care program permits connections between rural and non-rural healthcare sites to bring telemedicine solutions to rural consumers.
Here is one extreme but possible scenario: if the new broadband maps show that, say, 90% of residential consumers live in areas where broadband is available, then approximately 90% of all the schools, libraries, and health providers could lose their E-rate and RHC funding.
We do not believe this is what legislators had in mind when they crafted the Broadband DATA Act. The SHLB Coalition has been discussing this provision with Senate and House officials on both sides of the aisle, and we are grateful that some in Congress are willing to clarify this language before it is enacted into law. We will continue to work to ensure this provision does not result in unintended consequences that could harm schools, libraries and healthcare providers across the country.