FCC Seeks Comments on Emergency Broadband Benefit Program

By: Andrew Regitsky

On January 4, 2021, the FCC issued a request for comments due January 25, 2021 in Docket 20-445 on how best to administer a new $3.2 billion Emergency Broadband Benefit Program created by Congress to help low-income consumers access the Internet. The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 directed the Commission to create the program, which would reimburse participating companies for providing discounted broadband service and Internet connected devices to eligible households during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

There are several requirements for this voluntary program.  To participate, a broadband provider must:

Elect to participate and either be designated as an eligible telecommunications carrier by a state or be approved by the Commission.  Eligible carriers are approved to receive universal service funds under section 214(e) of the Telecommunications Act.

Make available to eligible households a monthly discount off the standard rate for an Internet service offering and associated equipment, up to $50 per month.  On Tribal lands, the monthly discount may be up to $75 per month.

Submit certain certifications to the Commission to receive reimbursement from the program.  The Commission is required to adopt audit requirements to ensure provider compliance to prevent waste, fraud, and abuse.

Participating providers will receive reimbursement from the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program for the discounts provided. Participating providers that also supply an eligible household with a laptop, desktop computer, or tablet (connected device) for use during the emergency period may receive a single reimbursement of up to $100 for the connected device, if the charge to the eligible household for that device is more than $10 but less than $50. An eligible household may receive only one supported device.

In its filing, the FCC requests the industry to respond to the following questions to help it most efficiently administer the program:

Which providers can participate in the program and what do such providers need to do to elect to participate?  The Commission proposes that each carrier that chooses to participate must submit to USAC a notice that indicates: (1) the states in which it plans to participate, (2) a statement that, in each such state, it was a “broadband provider” within the meaning of the Consolidated Appropriations Act as of December 1, 2020, (3) whether it seeks to participate in each state because it is either a designated eligible telecommunications carrier or is seeking designation by the Commission to participate (or both), (4) whether the provider intends to distribute connected devices in each such state, (5) a description of any Internet service offerings for which it plans to seek reimbursement in each state, and (6) documentation demonstrating the standard rates for the services for which it may claim reimbursement.

The Commission asks how it should set up an expedited process for approving broadband providers for areas where they are not eligible telecommunications carriers?  It proposes that any broadband provider seeking to participate must make the Emergency Broadband Benefit available across all its service areas in each of the states in which it is approved to participate.  In addition, broadband providers must adopt a plan to combat waste, fraud, and abuse like the compliance plans required of non-facilities-based carriers seeking approval to participate in the Lifeline program. 

The Commission requests comments on how providers should track participating households and verify that they are eligible?   It proposes using the definition of “households” used in its Lifeline program to determine eligibility for discounts.

What services and connected devices are eligible for reimbursement from the program? Should any devices be included beyond laptops, desktop computers or tablets?

How should the Commission structure the reimbursement process?   The agency proposes reimbursements through the Lifeline Claims Systems administered by USAC.

What rules are needed to ensure appropriate service on Tribal lands? 

How should the Commission and participating providers promote awareness of the program?  Should schools and libraries be enlisted to promote awareness?

What requirements are needed for robust auditing and enforcement of federal rules?  The Commission proposes to use the same auditing process already used for the Lifeline program.

What reporting requirements are needed both during the program and at its conclusion?

In a January 4, 2021 News Release, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, expressed his gratification for the Emergency Broadband Benefit Act:

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.