WASHINGTON – U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., ranking member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, today sent letters to the Department of Education, Department of Agriculture, and Department of Treasury requesting the agencies to report on the disbursement of funds received for broadband deployment, adoption, or other connectivity initiatives from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act of 2020, Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, and American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.
“The COVID-19 pandemic underscored the importance of broadband connectivity,” said Wicker. “Lockdowns and social distancing measures forced a broad range of everyday activities online, including work, education, and health care. But approximately 14.5 million Americans still lack access to a broadband connection and have not been able to engage in these activities remotely.”
“To address this issue, Congress has spent billions of dollars to fund multiple programs across the federal government that support the expansion of broadband connectivity and services to unserved and underserved locations. It is critical that both Congress and the agencies ensure that these funds are distributed in a way that avoids overbuilding, duplication of funding, and wasteful spending.”
The Department of Education received funding through all three legislative packages, with significant flexibility to allocate the funds as needed to help schools re-open safely or facilitate the transition to distance learning when schools could not re-open. In addition, the Federal Communications Commission received $7.1 billion for distance learning. The letter to Secretary Miguel Cardona requests details on coordination between the two agencies.
The ReConnect program at the Department of Agriculture received $100 million from the CARES Act and an additional $635 million in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 for rural broadband deployment. ReConnect was an existing program prior to the pandemic, but received supplemental funding through the relief packages.
The Treasury was responsible for administering billions of dollars in relief funds, including $150 billion from the CARES Act and $360 billion from the American Rescue Plan. These funds were to be used by state and local governments to cover costs incurred as a result of the pandemic, as well as for a wide range of infrastructure and capital initiatives. Broadband infrastructure and remote healthcare and education were among the eligible uses. Treasury has already issued a detailed report on the funds disbursed to this point, and, because of this existing reporting, the letter directed to Secretary Janet Yellen requests that this practice continue.