FCC to begin $50 broadband subsidy program May 12

FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel has set the date for the agency’s Emergency Broadband Benefit program to begin.  

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

Americans affected by the coronavirus pandemic who need assistance paying their broadband bills will soon get some help. The $50 a month broadband subsidy promised as part of the COVID-19 relief package Congress passed in December will be made available to low-income individuals starting in two weeks. 

The Federal Communication Commission said Thursday that households would be able to begin applying for the Emergency Broadband Benefit on May 12.  

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The $3.2 billion emergency relief program offers a subsidy of up to $50 a month to low-income households and up to $75 a month to households on Native American land to pay for broadband service. The FCC will also provide a onetime discount to poor households of up to $100 to purchase a computer or tablet.

Congress stipulated that the money would be available to households that are at the poverty line or 135 percent above it, those who qualify for free and reduced school lunches, or people who’ve experienced substantial loss of income since Feb. 29, 2020.

“Families in every corner of the country have been struggling to get online throughout this pandemic. For those families, we now say help is around the corner,” acting FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement. “In less than two weeks, we will have a new way for disconnected Americans to access the internet to carry out their day-to-day life, so they can reach the virtual classroom, take advantage of telehealth, and seek new employment opportunities.”

The digital divide

The FCC estimates that at least 14.5 million homes don’t have access to broadband. The pandemic has sh a light on the inequities between people with and without access to high-speed internet. For millions of Americans, the digital divide exists because they live in a rural part of the country where broadband infrastructure simply isn’t available. For other families in rural and suburban markets, broadband service may be available but unaffordable. During the pandemic, students without internet service haven’t been able to attend school. And adults who can’t go into offices have been unable to work remotely. 

Policy makers have tried for years to resolve the digital divide. Despite billions of dollars being spent each year to subsidize the cost of building new infrastructure and to offset the cost of service for poor Americans, the problem persists. It hasn’t helped that the FCC for years has been addressing these problems using maps that don’t accurately reflect where broadband service exists and where it doesn’t. 

Congress and the FCC agree that the broadband mapping issue needs to be fixed. At the FCC’s February meeting, Rosenworcel launched a task force to fulfill Congress’ mandate to improve the FCC’s broadband maps.

The FCC has moved quickly to get the program up and running. The agency voted unanimously in February to approve the plan to administer the program. Earlier this month, it announced that more than 300 fixed and mobile internet providers were approved to participate in the EBB program. Large providers, such as AT&T, Comcast and Windstream Communications, were part of the initial group approved for the program. 

What the carriers are doing

Following the FCC’s announcement Thursday, AT&T and Verizon offered more details on Friday about how they’ll administer the program. 

Verizon said the program is available to new and existing Fios, 5G Home Internet, LTE Home Internet, Mobile Mix & Match Unlimited or Mobile Hotspot customers. Verizon said customers with Fios Forward, a program that helps eligible households save $20 per month for high-speed fiber home internet service, will also be able to get the subsidy.

If customers already qualify for the FCC’s Lifeline subsidy program or if they qualify for other federal programs such as the National School Lunch Program, Pell Grant college funding program, or they’ve lost a job or had significant income loss during the pandemic, they could qualify for the program. To confirm eligibility for the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program discount, visit getemergencybroadband.org. 

AT&T also announced that customers of its AT&T and Cricket Wireless services could receive the temporary subsidy, which could greatly reduce the cost of their internet service. For example, qualifying new and existing customers on an AT&T Internet plan with speeds up to 300Mbps would pay $5 a month or less, the company said in a press release. 

“The pandemic proved that all Americans need reliable broadband connections for everything from applying for jobs, to working at home, to participating in school,” AT&T Communications CEO Jeff McElfresh said in a statement. “We are eager to step up and work hand-in-hand with the federal government to provide relief to customers while helping to bridge the Digital Divide.”

AT&T said that the EBB benefits can be applied to “select wireline and wireless broadband service plans” for both new and existing customers. These select plans include AT&T Fiber’s 1 GIG plan (Internet 1000). AT&T wireless customers will be able to use the subsidy for AT&T Unlimited Your Way, Unlimited Starter, Extra and Elite plans, all of which have 5G access included. Select AT&T Prepaid and Cricket plans will also be eligible for the program, but AT&T didn’t specify which plans.  Details will be available soon at att.com/EBB, the company said. 

Beyond subsidies 

AT&T and Verizon have each said they’re committed to helping close the digital divide. AT&T touted its Access from AT&T program that offers qualifying households wireline internet service at discounted rates. The company also noted that it recently announced it’ll invest $2 billion over the next three years through low-cost broadband service offerings and community investment to help close the digital divide.

Verizon says it plans to invest $3 billion over the next five years in what it calls “responsible business investment,” which includes more affordable broadband offerings. 

“Responsible business isn’t philanthropy, it must be part of the core strategy,” Hans Vestberg, chairman and CEO of Verizon, said in a statement. “We are committed to building sustainable solutions for our key stakeholders and driving access to mobility, broadband and cloud services for all.” 

As part of this effort, Verizon announced Friday a plan to help bring digital skills training to rural communities. The company is partnering with the National 4-H Council to offer digital skills training to adults in rural communities, with a specific focus on people of color. Working with nine historically Black colleges and universities, all land-grant institutions, the program will credential teens in the communities to provide training that’s expected to empower 15,000 adults with basic digital skills needed for jobs, education, banking and health care by the end of the year. This initiative is a part of Verizon’s efforts to support digital inclusion in rural communities. 

Political pressure

All of this comes as the Biden administration is pushing its more than $2 trillion infrastructure plan, which includes $100 billion in funding to help bridge the digital divide. In addition to getting infrastructure to areas of the country that are unserved or underserved, the Biden plan also calls for more digital equity. The president has specifically said the federal government won’t provide subsidies for broadband service forever and that more affordable offerings need to be made available for Americans who don’t have enough to pay for the services. 

Though the plan has yet to be fleshed out and defined, broadband providers are already pushing back on key aspects, such as prioritizing federal spending on government-run or nonprofit networks. The cable industry, in particular, opposes federal support for companies deploying “future-proof” infrastructure, which many in the industry believe is a veiled reference to favoring companies building fiber infrastructure. And all the big providers oppose any hint of potential price regulation on broadband.

Biden announced Wednesday that he’s put Vice President Kamala Harris in charge of the digital divide effort. Biden’s choice to put Harris in charge is a sign the White House sees broadband as a top priority. 

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