Tucked inside the $900 billion COVID-19 stimulus bill signed by President Donald Trump on Sunday are some significant broadband provisions aimed towards getting more Americans access to the internet at a crucial time in the nation’s history.
More than $7 billion for rural broadband initiatives were included as part of the bill, which also includes $300 million for the construction of rural broadband connectivity and $250 million for expanding telehealth services.
This could make a huge difference to many households and rural hospitals in Kentucky during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, according U.S. Rep. Andy Barr (R-KY).
As more Kentuckians and Americans are working and learning remotely during the pandemic, the importance of expanding rural broadband connectivity has been brought to the forefront.
In Madison County, the library, school systems, and several local businesses worked diligently to increase their wireless signals to allow students and households to complete schoolwork and attend Zoom meetings from parking lots, in an effort to bolster more internet availability.
Recent U.S. Census figures showed Kentucky ranked 44th in the nation for broadband access, with roughly 25% of households lacking a subscription for high-speed internet and more than 15% of homes not having a computer.
Cost and location are often a barrier for internet access across the nation and even more so in rural areas of Kentucky.
Even if a household does have access to high speed internet, some households choose not to because of the cost of a subscription, or the computers or tablets needed to access it.
In 2019, Pew Research found half of non-broadband users still say they don’t subscribe to the service because it’s too expensive, and nearly one in five households earning $30,000 or less aren’t online.
The $7 billion set aside for rural broadband initiatives in the pandemic relief bill addresses this digital divide.
The bill includes $3.2 billion for a $50-a-month emergency broadband benefit for low-income households and those who have suffered a significant loss of income in 2020.
Barr said the bill could be an essential tool in limiting the spread of the COVID-19 virus in addition to creating more opportunities for Kentuckians.
“I have worked diligently to enhance internet connectivity for rural communities, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic when many Kentuckians are working or learning remotely,” Barr said in a statement. “Additionally, by expanding telehealth services we embrace technology as a powerful weapon in limiting the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Together, these investments will provide a huge boost to Central and Eastern Kentucky as we fight to defeat the COVID-19 virus and deliver widespread and reliable broadband access for all.”
In April, Congressman Barr led the effort to persuade the Center for Medicaid and Medicare Services to expand coverage of telehealth services to include same-location services. This helped conserve personal protective equipment (PPE) and cut down on exposure for frontline doctors, nurses and healthcare workers to possible COVID-19 positive patients.
Barr also acknowledged the importance of working with local governments to develop long term, reliable broadband infrastructure.
The congressman has worked closely with Madison County Judge Executive Reagan Taylor on a bill (H.R. 8368) that provides local governments the flexibility to use funding from the Coronavirus, Aid, Recovery and Economic Security (CARES) Act to develop rural broadband infrastructure in their communities.