NDIA has released the following statement by Executive Director Angela Siefer on the passage of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act:

March 30, 2020

On Friday the House of Representatives passed and President Trump signed the $2.2 trillion CARES Act to offset the economic impact of the pandemic and the public health response to it.

Unfortunately, the CARES Act does not include meaningful help for tens of millions of Americans who are struggling to deal with closed schools, closed workplaces, limited access to banks and retailers, a mostly inaccessible health care system, and the public health obligation to “stay home”, possibly for months – all without the benefit of home internet connections.

The absence of broadband internet connections in so many American homes, at a time when we need to stay in our homes, is a public health crisis in its own right. Consumers who can’t bank, pay bills or shop at home must go out to stores, ATMs, payment centers and mailboxes. People who need medical care but can’t use telehealth tools are far more likely to show up at badly stressed emergency rooms and clinics, or else go without care – which could be a deadly choice in this situation.

People without online tools to take care of their basic needs at home are not going to stay at home. That’s bad news for all of us.

We are pleased to be able to point to one section that begins to address this serious aspect of the crisis. The Act appropriates $50 million for the Institute of Museum and Library Services to “prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus, including grants to States, territories and tribes to expand digital network access, purchase internet accessible devices, and provide technical support services”. (We are still scouring the CARES Act for additional support.) 

NDIA applauds this provision, which clearly permits IMLS to provide funding for efforts to help unconnected households get the internet access and devices they need, along with support services to assist those households to use them effectively.

But $50 million is a drop in the bucket. To enable IMLS and state, territories and tribal governments to promote meaningful short-term digital inclusion measures, Congress must:

  • Quickly increase the appropriation for this initiative to at least $500 million, if not more; and
  • Make clear that this funding is meant to support concrete, practical community action – by libraries, of course, but also by other public and nonprofit organizations as well – that will quickly connect poor and rural households to the Internet for education, healthcare, and other vital needs, during this crisis.

NDIA also calls on policymakers to consider two other measures as part of the nation’s emergency response to the COVID-19 crisis:

  1. Creation of a new, across-the-board Federal broadband subsidy that would be available to all households meeting an income threshold, similar to SNAP or LIHEAP.
  2. Emergency funding for quick-turnaround solutions that extend immediate affordable broadband service to unconnected communities and residents, including building WiFi, school bus WiFi, and rural fixed wireless setups. These solutions are likely to be implemented by local governments, anchor institutions, housing authorities and community volunteers.

Congress is reportedly working on additional COVID-19 stimulus legislation, to be taken up after the current recess. This is an opportunity for Congress to address the immediate need for internet access, devices and support affecting millions of American households.