Building the Best Emergency Broadband Benefit Program
Thuesday, January 26, 2021
Building the Best Emergency Broadband Benefit Program
With passage of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, the Federal Communications Commission has but a few weeks to craft rules for the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, a new effort that will allow low-income households to receive a discount off the cost of monthly broadband service and certain connected devices during the COVID-19 national emergency. Although the FCC currently has a program targeted at low-income consumers, the Lifeline program's monthly $9.25 discount really isn't enough to get and keep people connected to broadband during the pandemic. The FCC asked for public comment on implementing the new program; here's a look at what suggestions the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society made in our filing.
In a 2019 call for a new, comprehensive, national broadband plan, Benton recommended the creation of a broadband affordability agenda, an agenda that includes: 
- Enhancements to the Lifeline program. Benton urged the FCC to allow more providers to participate in Lifeline, to simplify the enrollment process for eligible households, to enlarge the scope of eligibility so more at-risk households receive the benefit, and an expansion of the program to provide the subsidies needed to make better broadband affordable for low-income households.
- Assistance to Broadband Providers’ Low-Income Programs. Providers could expand their low-income programs if it were easier to ascertain who is eligible for discounted prices—a process that has been described as time-consuming. Governments, through actions like the automated electronic eligibility verification process established for Lifeline, should help lower providers’ costs for offering these services by enabling them to use government verification systems—another reason for the prompt deployment of Lifeline’s national verification system.
- A Call to Educate and Protect Consumers. Benton identified lack of awareness of the Lifeline program as a major barrier to participation by eligible households. In addition, Benton noted that access to transparent program and pricing information helps consumers make informed choices. Consumers need clear information to understand the nature of introductory pricing, termination fees, and other terms of their broadband service.
- Support for Making Low-Cost Computing Devices Available. The availability of low-cost or free computers is often just as important as access to low-cost or free broadband options.
In June 2020, former-FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn and Benton Senior Fellow Jonathan Sallet penned an op-ed that appeared in the Boston Globe. Clyburn and Sallet called on Congress to create a $50/month credit to ensure many more people can afford broadband service. This proposal was repeated with more detail in a subsequent Benton report published in 2020.
All of these proposals are consistent with the Consolidated Appropriations Act and Benton again urges the FCC to adopt them in this proceeding. In addition, Benton offered comments based on five overarching principles:
- This is an emergency: As Congress recognizes in the very title of the program in question, the FCC is to create a broadband benefit in the midst of, and in response to, a national emergency. Connectivity is an essential tool for slowing the spread of the coronavirus; facilitating distance learning and telehealth services; coordinating vaccinations; and connecting the unemployed to job opportunities. The FCC must recognize that this emergency has existed since mid-March 2020 and must act swiftly to get and keep as many Americans connected in the shortest amount of time. At stake are community and individual health, household incomes, children’s education, and our economic recovery.
- Keep it simple: The FCC must keep rules and requirements for participating providers and recipients simple, clear, and easy to understand and execute so that those who can benefit most from the program are able to take advantage of it.
- Competition and choice: Although the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program is new, the overarching purpose of U.S. telecommunications law remains—to promote competition in order to secure lower prices and higher quality services for American telecommunications consumers. The FCC’s rules should encourage as many providers as possible to compete against each other to serve eligible households.
- Prioritize the unconnected: The FCC attempted, through the Keep Americans Connected Pledge, to help prevent consumers from losing service due to the economic downturn. However, many millions of Americans did not have broadband service before the COVID crisis, many because they could not afford service. In creating the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, Congress recognizes that more needs to be done to connect the unconnected, especially those with low-incomes. For providers, it will be very easy to just apply the emergency broadband benefit to existing qualified households. The Commission should incentivize providers to do the harder work of identifying, certifying eligibility, and connecting the disconnected – as Congress intended – to meet our COVID connectivity challenges.
- Identify and enlist eligibility aggregators: In the Digital Age, delivering messages to people who are not online may seem even more difficult. However, in creating the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, the FCC has natural partners through which to reach and verify eligible households, thus speeding the process and ensuring timely service delivery. For example, the Commission should allow school districts to act as eligibility aggregators, certifying qualified K-12 households for providers for the purposes of the emergency broadband benefit. In addition, the FCC should immediately enter into memoranda of understanding with the administrators of assistance programs that are already verifying that households are income-eligible for the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program. Such programs include: Medicaid; Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP); Supplemental Security Income (SSI); Federal Public Housing Assistance; Veterans and Survivors Pension Benefit; Bureau of Indian Affairs general assistance; Tribally administered Temporary Assistance for Needy Families; Head Start; and the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations. Participants in all these programs should be added to the Lifeline National Eligibility Verifier Database. Administrators of these programs should inform participants that they are eligible for the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program and supply them with vouchers or some other means to demonstrate their eligibility to providers.
More specifically, Benton said that in implementing the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, the FCC should recognize three key U.S. broadband marketplace realities. First, consumers are blissfully unaware of whether their broadband provider is an eligible telecommunications carrier or not. Current market trends see consumers overwhelmingly picking non-ETCs for broadband services. The FCC’s rules should allow non-ETCs to swiftly offer services supported by the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program. States have been active in creating targeted broadband service support programs during the pandemic; the FCC should seek out states' best practices.
Second, “standard rates” for new broadband customers are markedly different than “standard rates” for existing customers. Standard rates in the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program should be different based on whether a provider has signed up a new customer or not.
Third, customers must do a great deal of work to determine what a provider’s rates are and to compare them to another provider’s rates. Emergency Broadband Benefit Program rules should not further engrain these practices; instead, the FCC should strive for greater transparency both for consumers and so regulators can minimize waste, fraud, and abuse.
Although U.S. broadband consumers routinely pick services at far greater speeds, the FCC recently reiterated that the speed benchmark of 25/3 Mbps is “an appropriate measure by which to assess whether a fixed service is providing advanced telecommunications capability.” The Emergency Broadband Benefit Program should only support services at 25/3 or greater.
To help make potential Emergency Broadband Benefit Program enrollees aware of the benefit, the FCC should revisit successful portions of its digital television transition plan to identify and communicate with eligible households.
And the FCC should release ongoing progress reports to a breadth of stakeholders about participation in the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program including estimates on how long funding for the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program will last.
Finally, as the FCC designs the program, Benton asked that it keep in mind the widespread loss of income in the U.S. due to the pandemic. As the Pew Research Center reported in September 2020, one-in-four adults have had trouble paying their bills since the coronavirus outbreak started, a third have dipped into savings or retirement accounts to make ends meet, and about one-in-six have borrowed money from friends or family or gotten food from a food bank. Among lower-income adults, 46% say they have had trouble paying their bills since the pandemic started and roughly one third (32%) say it’s been hard for them to make rent or mortgage payments. About one-in-five or fewer middle-income adults have faced these challenges, and the shares are substantially smaller for those in the upper-income tier.
Overall, 25% of U.S. adults say they or someone in their household was laid off or lost their job because of the coronavirus outbreak, with 15% saying this happened to them personally. Young adults (ages 18 to 29) and lower-income adults are among the most likely to say this has occurred in their household. Of those who say they personally lost a job, half say they are still unemployed, only a third have returned to their old jobs and 15% are in a different job than before.
Even if they didn’t lose a job, many workers have had to reduce their hours or take a pay cut due to the economic fallout from the pandemic. About a third of all adults (32%) say this has happened to them or someone in their household, with 21% saying this happened to them personally. Most workers who’ve experienced this (60%) are earning less now than they were before the coronavirus outbreak, while 34% say they are earning the same now as they were before the outbreak.
Americans who have experienced job or wage loss – either personally or in their household – are more than twice as likely as those who have not to say they’ve had trouble paying their bills, struggled to pay their rent or mortgage, used money from savings or retirement to pay bills or borrowed money from friends or family.
These are the people Congress intended the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program to help. Now it is up to the FCC to adopt the right rules so it does.
 Sallet, Jonathan. October 2019. Broadband for America’s Future: A Vision for the 2020s. Evanston, IL: Benton Institute for Broadband & Society. https://www.benton.org/publications/broadband-policy2020s
 Mignon Clyburn now serves on the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society board of directors.
 Mignon Clyburn and Jonathan Sallet, Make broadband far more affordable. Boston Globe (June 27, 2020) https://www.bostonglobe.com/2020/06/27/opinion/make-broadband-far-more-affordable/
 Sallet, Jonathan. October 2020. Broadband for America Now. Evanston, IL: Benton Institute for Broadband & Society. https://www.benton.org/publications/broadband-america-now
 “Emergency” appears 43 times in § 904.
 Congress, in fact, mandates the FCC to expedite processes three times in § 904 – in addition to creating a short timeline for issuing rules to create the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program.
 Pew Research Center, June 2019, Mobile Technology and Home Broadband 2019 https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2019/06/13/mobile-technology-and-home-broadband-2019/
 Pew Research Center, September 2020, “Economic Fallout From COVID-19 Continues To Hit Lower-Income Americans the Hardest” https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2020/09/SDT_2020.09.24_COVID-19-Personal-Finances_FINAL.update2.pdf
The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.
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