FCC proposes emergency broadband subsidies

The Emergency Broadband Benefit Program would expand existing subsidies for pandemic-stricken households

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has announced details of a program to subsidize broadband costs for low-income households during the pandemic.

The Emergency Broadband Benefit Program (EBBP) will expand subsidies for Americans the COVID-19 crisis has hit the hardest.

"From work to healthcare to education, this crisis has made it clear that without an internet connection, too many households are locked out of modern life," said FCC chair Jessica Rosenworcel announcing the rules on Monday.

The EBBP was created under the Consolidated Appropriations Act 2021, which came into force on December 27. That bill passed $2.3 trillion in spending, including $900 million in stimulus relief and $1.4 trillion in appropriations, covering everything from defense to homeland security and transportation.

Under the program, eligible households would receive a $50 monthly discount on broadband services, jumping to $75 for people living on tribal lands. The FCC would reimburse service providers for those fees, Rosenworcel said. All eligible households would also receive a one-time $100 reimbursement for laptops, tablets, and other computers bought through a qualified provider.

To be eligible, a household would have to qualify for the Lifeline program, an initiative targeting low-income households that provides small discounts on telephone and broadband services ($9.95 for eligible households, or $34.95 per month for those on tribal lands). 

To qualify for Lifeline, a household's income must be at or below 135% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines or participate in other federal assistance programs such as Medicaid.

Other ways for households to qualify include proving their income dropped substantially since February 29, 2020, receiving benefits under school lunch or breakfast programs, or receiving a Federal Pell Grant, a subsidy for college students who need financial aid.

"No one should have to choose between paying their internet bill or paying to put food on the table," Rosenworcel said. "With the help of the Emergency Broadband Benefit, we have a new way for households to access virtual learning, for patients to connect to telehealth providers, and for those struggling in this pandemic to learn new online skills and seek their next job."

The FCC's commissioners must now vote on the rules, followed by a period of industry consultation. There’s no start date for the program, Rosenworcel said.

The move reflects a changing of the guard at the FCC. Rosenworcel is a long-time critic of broadband policy and has pointed repeatedly to inequality in broadband provision, especially for school children, in what she calls the "homework gap.” 

On February 1, Rosenworcel also sought comment on supporting remote learning during the pandemic using E-Rate funding, which is a subsidy program offering schools and libraries discounts for telecommunications and internet. The FCC already offered schools the chance to request more E-Rate funding to cope with pandemic-related needs late last year.

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