FCC focuses on partners, path forward for Emergency Broadband Benefit program

The FCC is working on how it will make available $3.2 billion that Congress appropriated to help subsidize broadband costs during the Covid-19 pandemic — but would you believe it if someone offered you “free internet”, or would you assume it was a scam?

While the program has been met with overwhelmingly positive response from a range of players from telecom companies to digital inclusion advocates, a number of thorny issues have been brought up in public comments as well as in a virtual roundtable on the Emergency Broadband Benefit program that the FCC held on Friday. How to communicate about the program to eligible consumers, and who best to deliver the message that the EBB is available, was just one of them.

The Emergency Broadband Benefit Program (EBBP) will provide a discount of up to $50 per month towards broadband service for eligible households and up to $75 per month for those on Tribal lands. Eligible households can also receive a one-time discount of up to $100 to purchase a laptop, desktop, or tablet from participating providers if they contribute $10-$50 toward the purchase price.

All four FCC Commissioners participated in the virtual roundtable, and each of them emphasized the amount of work that it will take to stand up such a large program so quickly and to do it in an efficient way that reaches a high number of people.

“It’s a program that Congress pulled together fast, and this agency now needs to make the hard choices required to provide relief fast,” said Acting FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel during the roundtable, adding that “This means outreach efforts not only by this agency but also by all of our partners in this program and everyone represented here today. It means policies that encourage robust participation by providers. It means wrestling with the privacy challenges under the law. And it means making sure that participants have clear and easy-to-follow rules of the road.”

Rosenworcel’s comment echoes the concern raised in many of the public comments on the EBB by broadband providers, who want participation in the program to be as simple as possible with a light regulatory burden. While the existing Lifeline program for telecom services for low-income customers provides a blueprint, Congress specifically wanted both established Eligible Telecommunications Carriers and non-ETC providers to be able to participate.

“I think we need to start with the fact that ‘free internet’ sounds kind of scammy,” said Angela Siefer, Executive Director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, who participated in the roundtable. “That’s a reality we have to deal with.” She added the because people may not trust that the EBB subsidy offers are real, it makes it even more important that the information is delivered by community-based sources of information that people trust, and that can also help address their concerns about privacy and digital literacy that may go along with getting broadband access.

Travis Noland, manager of government relations for the Cherokee Nation, said that the Indian Health Service and Tribal health systems are a common denominator on Tribal lands and that doctors may be one route for delivering the message about the EBB and what it entails. In his own personal experience, he told of recently meeting a neighbor who had lived nearby for decades and was still relying on mobile hot spots for internet access and did not know that satellite service — which Noland uses — was even an option.

FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks said that he saw the two biggest issues facing the EBB program as, how to get the word out about it and how to ensure that as many providers as possible participate.

“I have long been exasperated about the poor job the FCC has done in recent years to get the word out about the Lifeline program,” Starks said. “Only about 20 percent of Lifeline eligible households actually subscribe. For the Emergency Broadband Benefit to succeed, we’re going to need to do
much better.”

One of the issues that has garnered significant attention in the public comments filed regarding the EBB program is whether the subsidy will be available not just for standalone broadband plans, but for bundled service plans that also include other services such as voice, texting and mobile data services.

“Congress cannot have intended for the Commission to exclude the bundled internet service offerings purchased by the majority of American
consumers, the majority of Lifeline subscribers and almost all mobile internet service offerings,” said the National Lifeline Association in a comment to the FCC.

AT&T also brought up in a comment that the EBB program may have potential impacts on the future of the Univeral Service Fund contribution mechanism. “The USF funding system will not be able to provide the same
type of benefit when the EBB ends. Nor will it be able to support expanded E-rate benefits,” AT&T said, urging the FCC to “change to a more sustainable and durable funding source for all USF programs.”

That was also a concern for the digital inclusion advocates on Friday’s roundtable, where it was pointed out that community-based organizations will gear up to support the EBB, make people aware of it and get them signed up — but at some point, the funding will run out.

FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr said that he has two priorities for the program: Prioritizing remote learning and school children’s access to connectivity; and making sure that a broad range of providers participate. The $3.2 billion that Congress appropriated gives “a real chance at making significant progress” in addressing the gaps in educational access to broadband, Carr said, and making sure that all telecom players “regardless of the technology or the mode of delivery have a fair shot at participating in this program from day one, I think that’s the way that we are going to get the most bang for the buck and reach the most number of Americans … that are in need of this kind of relief.”

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