The COVID-19 relief legislation adopted late last year includes $3.2 billion for an Emergency Broadband Benefit program to be administered by the FCC. Some details about implementation of the program are as yet unresolved, and a panel presentation webcast organized by the commission today sought answers to some of the implementation questions.
Among the panelists were non-profit organizations, service provider associations and service providers. Open items discussed included how to qualify participants for the program, how to maximize service provider competitiveness and how to prepare for the program phase-out.
The Emergency Broadband Benefit Program
As FCC Acting Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel explained on the webcast, the Emergency Broadband Benefit program targets low-income households and will provide discounts up to $50 a month for internet service and up to $75 on tribal lands. It also will provide an opportunity for consumers to receive a discount on a computer or tablet.
According to an FCC website, the equipment discount is up to $100, provided that the household contributes $10 to $50 toward the purchase and makes the purchase from an approved supplier.
The FCC already has a low-income program known as Lifeline that provides a discount of $9.25 a month but as FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks noted on today’s webcast, only about 20% of people who are eligible for Lifeline are enrolled in the program. And that raises questions about what should be done differently to make the EBB program more successful.
Some participants, including Erica Myers, who is Microsoft’s lead on the Airband rural broadband program, suggested that the online process of enrolling in Lifeline may be too difficult and a call center should be created to help people enroll.
Mike Romano, senior vice president of industry affairs and business development for NTCA—The Rural Broadband Association, said the FCC should use the Lifeline verifier database to certify EBB applicants but said the program needs a self-certification option as well and should include some form of virtual assistance. Brenda Victoria Castillo, president and CEO of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, said the FCC shouldn’t require a social security number for participation.
Virginia Lam Abrams, senior vice president of government affairs and strategic advancement for fixed wireless provider Starry, noted that Starry has a program that provides service for residents in public housing and has obtained information about specific buildings so that anyone living at a specific address in a specific apartment number can get service.
In qualifying program participants, it’s important to “restore dignity for folks in need,” Abrams said. Requiring multiple forms of proof of low income can be a “soul crushing experience,” she noted.
Several panelists said they hoped providers would not restrict EBB participants to lower speed service and several argued that the participants would have the greatest choice if more providers were to join the program.
Steve Morris, vice president and deputy general counsel for NCTA—The Internet & Television Association, urged the FCC to establish a single start date for all service providers participating in the EBB program so that the providers would all be on a level playing field.
A key concern for multiple panel participants was that there is no clear expiration date for the EBB program. Instead, it will simply end when the money runs out.
Service providers participating in the webcast urged the FCC to communicate frequent updates including estimates of when funding will end. Some, including Romano, said it will be important for all providers to use consistent language explaining how the program will end so that consumers do not become confused.
Castillo said participants should be required to give their consent to continue service after the program ends – a requirement aimed at preventing sticker shock.
Clearly there is considerable work to be done before the Emergency Broadband Benefit program can kick off. Getting it right could mean overcoming some of the shortcomings of the Lifeline program.
For example, while the Lifeline discount can be used for fixed or mobile service, the majority of Lifeline participants choose the mobile option, which may not provide the best online experience for the participants. It will be interesting to see if the larger discount and the equipment discount included in the EBB program will be sufficient to drive more participants to choose the fixed service option.