The FCC’s Wireline Competition Bureau and the National Exchange Carrier Association (NECA) have taken steps aimed at enabling rural carriers to offer discounts on broadband connections for low-income families with school age children at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has driven schools nationwide to rely heavily on distance learning.

The COVID-19 NECA tariff changes enable rural providers to offer 25% discounts on certain broadband services to new customers whose families include children who are eligible to receive free or reduced-price school lunches through the National School Lunch program.

In addition, rural carriers that are on NECA tariffs will be able to offer speed upgrades at no extra charge to eligible existing customers.

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“I applaud the hundreds of NECA members that are committed to helping low-income students in their service areas connect and stay connected to the Internet,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a press release about the COVID-19 NECA tariff changes. “With the continued reliance upon remote learning in many parts of the country, students need connectivity to learn from and communicate with their teachers and classmates.”

The tariff revisions will be in effect until the end of June 2021. According to NECA, the program will allow participating carriers to offer:

  • a temporary discount on certain new broadband services or
  • a speed upgrade at no additional charge on certain existing broadband service from 1/6 to 50/100 Mbps (asymmetric digital subscriber line) or from 10/10 to 100/100 Mbps (symmetric digital subscriber line).

“Each participating carrier will decide how to reach out to its community and to verify customer eligibility,” the FCC said.

Addressing the Need

There has been a concerted effort to help students during this difficult time. The CARES Act, which was signed into law in late March, includes $16 billion in funding for remote learning.

Early last month T-Mobile launched. Project 10Million, which is a $10.7 billion project aimed at reaching students who can’t afford to go online.

Verizon weighed in a month earlier with a partnership with the Texas Education Agency and the state’s Operation Connectivity to bring distance learning discounts to 18.9 million in Texas and surrounding states, including Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota, Nebraska, New Mexico, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin.

Two smaller providers – EPB of Chattanooga and Atlantic Broadband – also have taken steps. EPB is providing free infrastructure for HCS EdConnect with the aim of providing free student broadband to about 28,500 students in economically challenged households. These students get a router and 100 Mbps or faster symmetrical services with no data cap.

In July, Atlantic Broadband – the nation’s eighth largest cable operator – announced. its participation in a statewide initiative to bring connectivity to households in Connecticut with school-aged children. The operator is accessing funding from the CARES Act to fund the effort.

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