House Democrats released a plan Thursday to invest more than $80 billion into boosting broadband internet access as the coronavirus forces Americans to work, learn and seek medical treatment from home.
The proposal by 12 lawmakers resembles bills Democrats have released before to bolster a core piece of U.S. infrastructure. The issue has taken on more urgency, though, as efforts to slow the outbreak's spread have forced governments to close businesses and schools, leaving millions at home without reliable internet service.
"This broadband deployment is very, very necessary," House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., told reporters earlier Thursday in previewing the plan. He said ensuring more households have the internet was "made even more necessary by this current pandemic that we're trying to respond to."
Democrats and President Donald Trump have pushed for a sprawling infrastructure package — which could cost up to $2 trillion — to refresh roads, bridges, tunnels and water systems while increasing internet access. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi suggested Thursday that Democrats could narrow their scope for infrastructure goals during the next phase of the coronavirus response to broadband and water systems.
The plan unveiled Thursday would inject $80 billion over five years into expansion of broadband infrastructure into neglected rural, suburban and urban areas, with an emphasis on communities with high levels of poverty. It includes measures to promote rapid building of internet systems, such as low-interest financing for infrastructure projects.
It also has provisions designed to increase competition and reduce costs, such as requiring providers who use federal funds to offer an affordable plan and guaranteeing local governments and public-private partnerships can provide broadband service. It also promotes the creation of mobile hotspots and sets aside money for Wi-Fi on school buses.
Clyburn said the investment is necessary for remote doctor's visits, which many Americans have resorted to during the pandemic. The representative noted that schools around the country remain closed, and the prospect of another wave of infections in the fall could hamper students who do not have reliable internet access even more.
A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declined to comment on whether the Kentucky Republican would support putting a broadband provision in the next relief bill Congress considers.
Pelosi said Thursday that the House would not convene again until the week of May 11 at the earliest, as leaders worry about risking lawmakers' health. When Congress returns, the California Democrat aims to pass a sprawling rescue measure that includes more than $500 billion in relief for state and local governments and expands pieces of the $2 trillion stimulus package passed last month.
The Senate will return to Washington next week.