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Doyle Touts Pandemic Relief Funding To Boost Broadband Access

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Matt Nemeth
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90.5 WESA

Americans who can’t afford to pay for internet access, or who live in rural parts of the country without broadband infrastructure, could get help from Congress’s next pandemic relief package. On Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle led a Congressional hearing to evaluate how federal support would impact students and families who have had trouble getting online during the pandemic.

“Americans throughout the country have struggled to get connected and to stay connected,” said the Democratic chairman of the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology. “Too many households are going without broadband service because they can’t afford it, either because it was too expensive before or it’s too expensive now.”

Last week, the Energy and Commerce Committee, of which Doyle is a member, pushed a proposal to create $7.6 billion for eligible schools and libraries to provide services and devices for students and teachers to use at home. According to a recent Congressional report, 35% of Native American students, 30% of Black students and 18% of white students in rural communities lack broadband internet.

“This investment is long overdue - we have known about the homework gap for years - and the pandemic has really laid this inequality bare,” Doyle said at Wednesday’s hearing. “It’s critical that we give students and families the resources they need to allow kids to participate in their own education.”

Dr. Tiffany Anderson, the superintendent of Topeka Public Schools, testified before the committee, and said students and teachers in her school district lack adequate resources for online education. She said students with limited English proficiency needed translation services but didn’t have internet to access it, and Native American students did not have the infrastructure to get reliable internet.

“Many of our teachers live in rural areas in Kansas and they were unable to teach without adequate or reliable broadband services from home,” she said. “The needs of the under-served grew exponentially during the pandemic, where access to devices and remote services that relied on adequate Wi-Fi was crucial.”

Anderson said the school district provided hot spots to as many students as possible, and also put hot spots in parked school buses in places where students could walk to.

Doyle asked Anderson how the new funding Democrats want would impact school reopening. “Some of our colleagues are arguing rather strongly that the funding for distance learning would actually slow down the reopening process," he said. "What do you think?”

“That’s not going to slow down reopening,” Anderson said. “Because prior to the pandemic, we needed these services. Virtual schools were already in place. Telehealth was already in place. I believe that we could open schools more quickly if we had the flexibility to address the current pressing needs from the pandemic, but we also have the flexibility to address the problems that were already existing.”

Doyle has long sought to address inequities in broadband internet service, and the pandemic has given new urgency to the cause. Democrats hope to pass the funding through budget reconciliation, a process which allows them to quickly advance priorities as part of a massive COVID-19 relief bill.

In December, Congress passed a pandemic relief package that included money to temporarily help address the high costs of internet access relied on by both kids learning remotely and adults working from home. $3.2 billion was set aside to provide low-income households with a $50 monthly credit on broadband bills, and a $75 monthly credit to people living on tribal lands.