NAICU Washington Update

Infrastructure Bill: Broadband Expansion Includes Colleges and Students

August 05, 2021

Details of the Senate’s bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure bill were released this week. The bill, which is primarily centered on traditional infrastructure needs such as roads, bridges, trains and transits, does include several programs of interest to higher education:  broadband expansion and extension of the broadband emergency benefit program for Pell Grant recipients.

Funding for expansion of broadband service across the states and individual access to internet services for low income students is budgeted at $65 billion. The bulk of the funds, $42.45 billion, will be sent to the states in grants to deploy internet capacity to unserved and underserved areas, based on population and the high-speed internet capacity needed to reach residents. Funds will also be available for implementation grants via “community anchor institutions” to help further expand access within the communities. The good news is that higher education institutions are included as one of the many eligible community anchor institutions to receive funding from the state allocation to help provide community-wide internet access. 

Another $14.2 billion is allocated for the Affordable Connectivity Program which supports reduced cost access to the internet and technological devices for low income students, including Pell Grant recipients. This program was created in the CARES Act as the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program and is renamed in the Senate bill. The bill proposes an $11 billion increase in the program, and raises the income qualification from 135% of the poverty line to 200% of the poverty line. However, the proposal lowers the individual subsidy from the $50 allowed in the CARES Act to $30 per month. 

To raise awareness of the benefit, and to make it easier for low-income students to use the subsidy, the bill requires the Department of Education to coordinate efforts with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The bill requires Education Department to share information about the Affordable Connectivity Program with Pell Grant recipients, including how to apply for the subsidy; and it requires a data-sharing agreement between the Education Department and the FCC, so that Pell Grant recipient information can be automatically included in the application quickly and easily confirm student eligibility.

Congress has many steps to take before the infrastructure bill is finalized. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said members will not recess for the August break until all debate and amendments have been considered. The House of Representatives has already recessed for the break and is not currently scheduled to reconvene until September.  The House has the option of considering the Senate bill or developing its own bill. If both chambers can agree on a final version it would then have to go to the president for signature.  

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