FCC readies rules for $50 emergency broadband subsidies

FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel.

FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel. The FCC will soon implement rules to dole out $3.2 billion in subsidies to households hit by the pandemic, so they can pay for broadband service.

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The acting chairwoman of the Federal Communications Commission, Jessica Rosenworcel, introduced a proposal on Monday that would set rules for allocating $3.2 billion in emergency relief to subsidize broadband for millions of poor Americans during the coronavirus pandemic

Rosenworcel began circulating her proposal, called the Emergency Broadband Benefit, among FCC commissioners. It’s scheduled to be voted on at the FCC’s March meeting. The plan calls for the federal government to allocate $50 a month to subsidize broadband internet service for low income households. People living on tribal lands will get a $75 a month subsidy.

The plan would put into action money Congress allocated in December as part of the COVID-19 relief bill. 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 have experienced substantial loss of income since Feb. 29, 2020.

The FCC estimates that at least 14.5 million homes don’t have access to broadband. The pandemic has shone a light on the inequities that exist among 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. 

“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,” Rosenworcel said in a statement. “It’s more apparent than ever that broadband is no longer nice-to-have. It’s need-to-have. But too many of us are struggling to afford this critical service.”

Rosenworcel added that “no one should have to choose between paying their internet bill or paying to put food on the table.” 

Congress had already established how much of a subsidy households could receive through the temporary subsidy program. But the FCC, which will allocate the funds, is in charge of setting up and maintaining the program. The rules that Rosenworcel circulated this week are the first step in getting the money out the door. 

Policy makers have tried for years to resolve the digital divide. In spite of 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 last week, Rosenworcel launched a task force to fulfill Congress’ mandate to improve the FCC’s broadband maps.

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