The Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Wireline Competition Bureau announced Monday that it has requested comment on how it should dispense a new $3.2 billion Emergency Broadband Benefit Program that was created by Congress via the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, which directed the FCC to create the program to help low-income Americans access broadband. Under the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, companies that participate in the program are reimbursed for providing discounted broadband service and connected devices to qualifying households during the COVID-19 pandemic in an effort to close the digital divide.
The initiative is a response to the FCC’s Keep Americans Connected Pledge and comes after FCC Chairman Ajit Pai urged Congress to ensure that Americans could remain connected after the pledge was set to expire. The Act establishes several requirements for the program. Namely, in order to participate in the program, a provider must elect to participate and be either an eligible telecommunications carrier or have FCC approval. The participating providers will provide up to a $50 monthly discount for internet service offerings and related equipment to eligible households and on tribal lands up to a $75 monthly discount. If a participating provider also provides an eligible household with a connected device, such as a laptop, tablet, or desktop computer, to use during the emergency period, the provider may receive a one-time payment of up to $100 for the connected device if the eligible household is charged between $10 and $50 for the connected device. The commission noted that eligible households may only receive one connected device. In order to be reimbursed, providers must submit some certifications to the FCC; it is mandated that the commission adopts audit requirements to ensure that providers comply and to prevent waste, fraud, and abuse.
The commission issued a public notice seeking comment on a variety of issues, such as:
- “Which providers can participate in the program and what do such providers need to do to elect to participate?”
- “How should the Commission set up an expedited process for approving broadband providers for areas where they are not eligible telecommunications carriers?”
- “How should the Commission and providers track participating households and verify that they are eligible?”
- “What services and connected devices are eligible for reimbursement from the program?”
- “How should the Commission structure the reimbursement process?”
- “What rules are needed to ensure appropriate service on Tribal lands?”
- “How should the Commission and participating providers promote awareness of the program?”
- “What requirements are needed for robust auditing and enforcement of federal rules?”
- “What reporting requirements are needed both during the program and at its conclusion?”
Chairman Pai said, “We’re excited to get to work on this new program, which responds to my call last June for Congress to fund a program to advance the Keep Americans Connected initiative that we launched when the pandemic started. The Emergency Broadband Benefit Program will go a long way to ensuring that low-income American families and veterans are connected during the pandemic, and that students can engage in remote learning with support from the program’s funding for connected devices. Our staff is moving quickly to stand up this program so we can quickly direct funding to consumers who need the help, while also guarding against waste, fraud, and abuse. We look forward to getting public input on how best to structure this effort.”