House passes COVID stimulus package with billions in technology funding

Schools and libraries win $7.1 billion in connectivity funding

US Capitol Building at sunset

Congressional lawmakers passed the long-awaited government stimulus bill Wednesday, which included cash injections for federal technology efforts.

The House of Representatives passed the American Rescue Plan Act, a $1.9 trillion package designed to help US households hit by the pandemic. It included $7.1 billion in emergency connectivity funding for remote learning and $1 billion for the Technology Modernization Fund (TMF), a funding hub for federal IT projects.

The broadband money came in the form of the Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF), which would allocate money for schools and libraries to buy Wi-Fi hotspots, modems, routers, and connected devices for students to use for remote learning during the pandemic. The Fund resulted from pressure from education advocates who petitioned the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in January for emergency E-rate funding. 

The ECF is a separate measure to the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program passed as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act in December.

FCC chair Jessica Rosenworcel, a long-standing supporter of broadband assistance for students, praised the move. "Recent estimates suggest the Homework Gap may affect as many as 17 million kids with recent data suggesting as many as one in three Black, Latinx, and American Indian/Alaska Native students lack high-speed internet access at home," she said. "The Emergency Connectivity Fund could make a major difference in our ability to help these families and students."

The government also made broadband internet access part of the Homeowner Assistance Fund, which allocates $9.96 billion to help homeowners cope with the pandemic. Municipalities could also use money from the $130.2 billion Coronavirus Local Fiscal Recovery Fund for broadband investments, the Act said. States could make broadband investments via the $219.8 billion Coronavirus State Fiscal Recovery Fund.

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The TMF is a funding service passed by the Modernizing Government Technology Act of 2017. Overseen by a Technology Modernization Board comprising IT leaders, it reviews technology projects submitted by federal agencies and grants funding as appropriate. The $1 billion for the TMF was a substantial downgrade from the original $9 billion President Biden first proposed in his stimulus plan on January 20.

Biden's plan earmarked the TMF money to help fund shared services at the Cybersecurity and Information Security Agency (CISA) and the General Services Administration, along with other federal IT projects. Biden also called on Congress to change the TMF's reimbursement structure to fund more innovative projects in his January announcement.

The Act also carved out a separate $650 million for the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and $200 million for the United States Digital Service. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) got $150 million, while the National Science Foundation received $600 million in funding. It now goes to Biden's desk to sign. The White House announced that he would sign the Act into law today — a day earlier than expected.

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