Creating (Finally) an Emergency Broadband Benefit

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Digital Beat

Creating (Finally) an Emergency Broadband Benefit

More than nine months after the national COVID-19 emergency was declared, Congress has directed the Federal Communications Commission to create an emergency broadband benefit, a monthly discount on broadband internet access service for low-income people. On January 4, the FCC released a Public Notice asking for comment on how to best implement this new program which Congress expects to be up and running in the next two months. Here's a look at what the FCC is asking.

Emergency Broadband Benefit Program

In the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, Congress established the Emergency Broadband Connectivity Fund and allocated $3.2 billion for the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program. The aim is to connect low-income households, especially households with school-aged children, to broadband networks at affordable rates. Broadband providers will be reimbursed up to $50/month per low-income household it serves ($75/month if the household is on Tribal land). The providers can also be reimbursed up to $100 for providing the household with a connected device (desktop, laptop, or tablet computer) if the household contributes $10-$50 for the device. (Households are only eligible for one device.) 

Congress created the program to be temporary -- lasting just six months after the COVID crisis ends. The Emergency Broadband Connectivity Fund is entirely separate from the FCC's Universal Service Fund and its programs to bring broadband to rural areas; schools and libraries; rural healthcare facilities; and low-income households.

Who Can Offer Service?

For broadband internet access service providers, participation in the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program is voluntary. Traditionally, FCC subsidies for broadband services have flowed to what is called Eligible Telecommunications Carriers (ETCs), a designation state utility carriers have, again, traditionally bestowed, on telephone companies. But non-ETCs will also be able to participate in the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program. The FCC, through this rulemaking, is to establish an "expedited process" to approve providers that are not already ETCs, but want to participate in the program. The FCC is to automatically approve any broadband providers that have been operating, since April 1, 2020, a discounted program for verified low-income households.

Any provider that opts into the program, the FCC proposes, will have to inform the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC):

For any provider For a non-ETC provider
the states in which it plans to participate, the states in which it plans to participate,
a statement that, in each such state, it was a broadband provider as of December 1, 2020, the service areas in which the provider has the authority, if needed, to operate in each state but has not been designated an eligible telecommunications carrier,
whether it seeks to participate in each state because it is either a designated ETC or is seeking designation by the FCC to participate (or both), documentation of the provider’s plan to combat waste, fraud, and abuse,
whether the provider intends to distribute connected devices in each such state, whether it seeks automatic approval because it offers an established program in each state, and
a description of any internet service offerings for which it plans to seek reimbursement in each state, and if seeking such automatic approval, documentation that the broadband provider has a qualifying established program in such states.
documentation demonstrating the standard rates for the services for which it may claim reimbursement.  

 

The FCC asks what additional information, if any, should be required. The FCC proposes to approve providers on a rolling basis. The commission asks if it should establish a timeframe for approving provider applications and how best to notify applicants of its decisions. The FCC asks what information should be disclosed to the public. 

The FCC asks if it should prioritize applications seeking automatic approval, subject to later verification and potential revocation. Or should the FCC verify that an applicant qualifies for automatic approval before issuing an approval? What showing must an applicant make to demonstrate it had a qualifying established plan? The FCC expects the provider to explain the eligibility criteria and other pertinent information about a provider’s existing low-income or COVID–19 program including, with specificity, that it was “widely available” as of April 1, 2020. How should the FCC assess such filings? Should the FCC pay special attention to established programs that target groups vulnerable during the pandemic, such as low-income households, Americans living in rural or Tribal areas, communities of color, students, veterans, or the newly unemployed? Should a complete and sufficient plan to combat waste, fraud, and abuse suffice to show that an established plan “maintains verification processes that are sufficient to avoid fraud, waste, and abuse” or must an applicant make a separate showing on that point? What documentation should be required of such applicants?

For non-ETC applicants, the FCC proposes two requirements: 1) any provider seeking to participate must make the Emergency Broadband Benefit available across all of its service areas in each of the states in which it is approved to participate and 2) broadband providers adopt a plan to combat waste, fraud, and abuse similar to the compliance plans required of non-facilities-based carriers seeking approval to participate in the Lifeline program. The FCC seeks comment on these proposed requirements. 

What Service and Devices Can Be Offered? How Much Can They Cost?

The law says providers can only be reimbursed for providing internet service -- that is, “broadband internet access service provided by [a broadband] provider to a household, offered in the same manner, and on the same terms, as described in any of such provider’s offerings for broadband internet access service to such household, as on December 1, 2020.”

The program is meant to provide a monthly discount "applied to the actual amount charged...which shall be no more than the standard rate for an internet service offering and associated equipment, in an amount equal to such amount charged." But what's a "standard rate?" you might ask. The FCC does. What about promotional rates? And contract rates? And the various contract lengths? What documentation would show that a service at a particular rate was actually offered in a particular state? Should the FCC require documentation demonstrating that a certain number or percentage of the providers’ subscribers had purchased service at that rate prior to the creation of the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program? What if standard rates are not uniform across all the areas the provider serves? [Do these questions make anyone else think this industry might have a rate transparency problem?]

The Consolidated Appropriations Act defines a “connected device” eligible for reimbursement as “a laptop or desktop computer or tablet." The FCC wonders if any further clarity regarding devices might be needed. Is there a commonly understood definition of tablet to ensure that the available funds are directed toward their intended purpose? Alternatively, are there end-user devices, such as mobile phones, that plainly are excluded as a connected device in the program? How would the FCC distinguish between smaller tablets and larger mobile phones?

Because the Consolidated Appropriations Act provides that a member of a household that participates in the free and reduced-price lunch or the school breakfast programs, or is the recipient of a Pell grant in the current award year qualifies for the discount, the FCC is proposing that any connected device eligible for reimbursement must support video conferencing platforms and other software essential to ensure full participation in online learning. The commission asks if it should impose minimum system requirements for connected devices supported by this program and, if so, what those system requirements should be.

Who Qualifies for the Discount?

The FCC proposes to make broadband providers responsible for verifying a household's eligibility to participate in the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program. The FCC proposes that participating providers track enrollments of eligible households in the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program in the National Lifeline Accountability Database. This proposal would require that the National Lifeline Accountability Database be able to associate a subscriber record with up to two providers—one Lifeline provider and one Emergency Broadband Benefit provider.

Participating providers must verify the eligibility of a household for the Emergency Broadband Benefit either by: (1) directing applicants to the National Verifier and the National Lifeline Accountability Database, (2) relying on a school to verify participation in the free and reduced-price lunch program or the school breakfast program, or (3) using the provider’s eligibility verification process if such process is approved by the FCC.

A household is eligible, regardless of whether it currently receives Lifeline support or has any past or present arrearages with a broadband provider if someone in the household is:

A. Lifeline Eligible

(1) A consumer's household income[1] must be at or below 135% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines for a household of that size; or

(2) The consumer, one or more of the consumer's dependents, or the consumer's household must receive benefits from one of the following federal assistance programs: Medicaid;[2] Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program;[3] Supplemental Security Income;[4] Federal Public Housing Assistance;[5] or Veterans and Survivors Pension Benefit.[6]

A consumer who lives on Tribal lands is eligible for Lifeline service as a “qualifying low-income consumer” as defined by §54.400(a) and as an “eligible resident of Tribal lands”[7] if that consumer meets the qualifications for Lifeline or if the consumer, one or more of the consumer's dependents, or the consumer's household participates in one of the following Tribal-specific federal assistance programs: Bureau of Indian Affairs general assistance;[8] Tribally administered Temporary Assistance for Needy Families;[9] Head Start (only those households meeting its income qualifying standard);[10] or the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations.[11]

B. Free or Reduced Lunch[12]/School Breakfast Program[13] Eligible

C. Has experienced COVID-related loss of income: at least one member of the household has experienced a substantial loss of income since February 29, 2020 that is documented by layoff or furlough notice, application for unemployment insurance benefits, or similar documentation, or that is otherwise verifiable through the National Verifier or National Lifeline Accountability Database.

D. Received a Federal Pell Grant

How Will People Hear About the Program?

The FCC seeks comment on the best methods to publicize the availability of the services and connected devices supported by the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program. Should participating providers have any obligation under the program’s rules to publicize the availability of the benefit? What are the most effective means of publicizing this benefit to the communities most in need? The FCC seeks comment on this idea and on best practices employed by providers with existing low-income broadband plans to reach low-income households.

The FCC also seeks comment on whether the commission or USAC should also take steps to publicize the program to supplement the outreach of the participating providers. Should USAC conduct outreach to current Lifeline subscribers? What outreach activities conducted by the FCC or USAC would most effectively promote awareness among potentially eligible households?

Finally, how could other civic entities help publicize the availability of these broadband discounts? Are there measures schools, libraries, and other local institutions can take to encourage participation in this program? Should the FCC or USAC promote the availability of these funds to other universal service program participants?

The FCC Wants to Hear From You

The FCC asks that interested parties file comments in this proceeding on or before January 25, 2021. Parties will have a short period to review and comment on other filings; those reply comments are due on or before February 16, 2021. (All filings should reference Wireline Competition Docket No. 20-445.)

Congress gave the FCC just 60 days to issue the rules creating the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program. 

For further information, please contact Eric Wu, Attorney Advisor, Telecommunications Access Policy Division, Wireline Competition Bureau at (202) 418-1543 or by email at [email protected].


Notes


[1] as defined in §54.400(f)...  Income. “Income” means gross income as defined under section 61 of the Internal Revenue Code, 26 U.S.C. 61, for all members of the household. This means all income actually received by all members of the household from whatever source derived, unless specifically excluded by the Internal Revenue Code, Part III of Title 26, 26 U.S.C. 101 et seq.

[2] Low-income families, qualified pregnant women and children, and individuals receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI). States have additional options for coverage and may choose to cover other groups, such as individuals receiving home and community-based services and children in foster care who are not otherwise eligible. The Affordable Care Act of 2010 extended eligibility for children to at least 133% of the federal poverty level (FPL) in every state (most states cover children to higher income levels), and states were given the option to extend eligibility to adults with income at or below 133% of the FPL. Most states have chosen to expand coverage to adults, and those that have not yet expanded may choose to do so at any time.

[3] Gross monthly income at 130% of federal poverty level or less.

[4] Must be at least age 65 OR be blind or disabled; have less than $2,000 in assets for a single person, and $3,000 for a couple; and, in general, the income limit for SSI is the federal benefit rate (FBR), which is $783 per month for an individual and $1,175 per month for a couple in 2020.

[5] The Department of Housing and Urban Development sets the lower income limits at 80% and very low-income limits at 50% of the median income for the county or metropolitan area in which a person chooses to live. Income limits vary from area to area so a person may be eligible at one housing authority but not at another. The housing authority serving a community can provide a person with the income levels for the area and family size.

[6] The Veteran A) Entered active duty on or before September 7, 1980, and served at least 90 days on active military service, with at least 1 day during a covered wartime period, B) Entered active duty after September 7, 1980, and served at least 24 months or the full period for which they were called or ordered to active duty (with some exceptions), with at least 1 day during a covered wartime period, or C) Was an officer and started on active duty after October 16, 1981, and hadn’t previously served on active duty for at least 24 months. Maximum Annual Pension Rate set by Congress (~$23,238/year)

[7] As defined by §54.400(e) Eligible resident of Tribal lands. An “eligible resident of Tribal lands” is a “qualifying low-income consumer,” as defined in paragraph (a) of this section, living on Tribal lands. For purposes of this subpart, “Tribal lands” include any federally recognized Indian tribe's reservation, pueblo, or colony, including former reservations in Oklahoma; Alaska Native regions established pursuant to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (85 Stat. 688); Indian allotments; Hawaiian Home Lands—areas held in trust for Native Hawaiians by the state of Hawaii, pursuant to the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act, 1920 July 9, 1921, 42 Stat. 108, et. seq., as amended; and any land designated as such by the Commission for purposes of this subpart pursuant to the designation process in §54.412.

[8] To be eligible for General Assistance, all applicants must apply concurrently for financial assistance from other state, tribal, county, local, or other Federal agency programs for which they might be eligible.

[9] In order to qualify for this benefit program, you must be a Native American/American Indian who is unemployed or about to become unemployed, you or a family member must be enrolled in a federally recognized American Indian tribe or Alaska Native village, you must live on or near an Indian reservation, and you must characterize your financial situation as low income or very low income.

[11] See SNAP eligibility.

[12] The income guidelines for determining eligibility for free lunches shall be 130 percent of the nonfarm income poverty guidelines. The income guidelines for determining eligibility for reduced-price lunches for any school year shall be 185 percent of the nonfarm income poverty guidelines.

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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Kevin Taglang

Kevin Taglang
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Benton Institute
for Broadband & Society
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