Digital Inclusion Week Indeed
Friday, May 7, 2021
Digital Inclusion Week Indeed
You’re reading the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society’s Weekly Digest, a recap of the biggest (or most overlooked) broadband stories of the week. The digest is delivered via e-mail each Friday.
Round-Up for the Week of May 3-7, 2021
In the coming days, we will see major progress on a $10+ billion federal investment in digital inclusion. This moment is unprecedented. We've never seen such a large commitment to making broadband service affordable for all. And, as Congress starts to focus on long-term solutions for universal broadband, we're seeing the potential for more digital inclusion investment in the coming months.
The Emergency Connectivity Fund Program: Help for Schools and Libraries that Connected Students, Staff, and Patrons
On April 30, Acting Federal Communications Commission Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel unveiled draft rules for the $7.17 billion Emergency Connectivity Fund Program. Created by Congress in the American Rescue Plan of 2021, the fund will reimburse schools and libraries for the purchase, during the COVID-19 pandemic, of laptop and tablet computers, Wi-Fi hotspots and other eligible equipment as well as broadband connections for students, school staff, and library patrons who would otherwise lack access to connected devices and broadband service during the pandemic. The rules are expected to be adopted by May 10.
When adopted, the rules will:
- Designate the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC) as the administrator of the Emergency Connectivity Fund Program.
- Set performance goals and metrics to measure the FCC’s and USAC’s success in efficiently and effectively administering the Emergency Connectivity Fund Program.
- Adopt rules for eligible equipment and services; service locations; eligible uses; and reasonable support amounts for funding provided through the Emergency Connectivity Fund Program.
- Streamline and simplify the processes eligible schools and libraries use to apply for and receive reimbursements through the Emergency Connectivity Fund Program.
- Adopt procedures to protect the limited funding from waste, fraud, and abuse, including: asset and service inventories; document retention requirements; prohibition on gifts; certifications, including compliance with the Children’s Internet Protection Act; audits; and treatment of equipment after the emergency period.
USAC will open an initial 45-day Emergency Connectivity Fund Program filing window as soon as practicable. During this initial filing window, schools and libraries may apply for funding for eligible equipment and services purchased between July 1, 2020 and April 30, 2021 and provided during that time period to students, school staff, and library patrons who lacked access to adequate connected devices, other eligible equipment or eligible services. Applicants may request support for equipment and services received after April 30, 2021 in the next filing window.
The Emergency Broadband Benefit Program: Affordable Broadband Service for Low-income Households
On May 12, the FCC will launch the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program which will provide eligible households with discounts of up to $50 a month for broadband service, and up to $75 a month if the household is on Tribal lands. The program also will provide a one-time discount of up to $100 on a computer or tablet for eligible households. Eligible households will be able to enroll in the program to receive a monthly discount off the cost of broadband service from an approved provider. Eligible households can enroll through an approved provider or by visiting https://getemergencybroadband.org. To find the participating broadband providers in each state, visit https://www.fcc.gov/emergency-broadband-benefit-providers.
A household is eligible if a member of the household meets one of the criteria below:
- Has an income that is at or below 135% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines or participates in certain assistance programs, such as SNAP, Medicaid, or Lifeline;
- Approved to receive benefits under the free and reduced-price school lunch program or the school breakfast program, including through the USDA Community Eligibility Provision in the 2019-2020 or 2020-2021 school year;
- Received a Federal Pell Grant during the current award year;
- Experienced a substantial loss of income due to job loss or furlough since February 29, 2020 and the household had a total income in 2020 at or below $99,000 for single filers and $198,000 for joint filers; or
- Meets the eligibility criteria for a participating provider's existing low-income or COVID-19 program.
In the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, Congress set aside $3.2 billion for the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program. The program will end when the funds are depleted or up to six months after the national COVID-19 emergency ends.
More Help on the Way?
On May 6, the House Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Communications and Technology held a hearing on the disparities that exist in accessing affordable, reliable high-speed internet in the U.S. Democrats on the subcommittee recognize that cost of monthly service remains a major factor in the number of American households without home internet. Benton Senior Faculty Research Fellow Colin Rhinesmith found that many low-income families cannot afford more than $10-15/month for broadband. For the unbanked, any monthly fee can be an insurmountable obstacle.
In his proposal to invest in American infrastructure, the American Jobs Plan, President Joe Biden indicated he wants to: extend broadband's reach to all Americans, promote price transparency and competition among internet providers (including by lifting barriers that prevent municipally-owned or affiliated providers and rural electric co-ops from competing on an even playing field with private providers), reduce the cost of broadband, and encourage wider broadband adoption.
Congressional Democrats have offered two legislative avenues to reaching Biden's goals. The Leading Infrastructure For Tomorrow’s America Act, or LIFT America Act (H.R. 1848) would make $80 billion available for broadband deployment, $9.3 billion for broadband affordability and adoption efforts, and $5 billion for low-interest financing of broadband deployment.
Encourage Universal Broadband Access
- Authorize $80 billion to deploy high-speed broadband infrastructure nationwide;
- Allocate $5 billion over five years for low-interest financing of broadband deployment through a new secured loan program; and
- Establish a new office within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to ensure efficient use of federal money.
Ensure Internet Affordability
- Require an affordable option for internet service plans offered on the newly-built infrastructure funded by the legislation;
- Authorize an additional $6 billion for the recently established Emergency Broadband Connectivity Fund, which provides a $50 monthly discount on the internet plans of low-income Americans anywhere in the country, or $75 for consumers on tribal lands; and
- Direct the Federal Communication Commission to collect and publicize data on prices charged for broadband service throughout the country.
Promote Internet Adoption
- Provide over $1 billion to establish grant programs for states to close gaps in broadband adoption, as well as digital inclusion projects for organizations and local communities to implement;
- Include $2 billion to enable students without internet at home to participate in remote learning; and
- Authorize funding for Wi-Fi on school buses so students can stay connected, especially in rural areas where longer bus rides are common.
House Republicans mainly see further deregulation as the best path to universal broadband. At the Communications Subcommittee hearing this week, House Commerce Minority Leader Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-OR) emphasized her colleagues' Boosting Broadband Connectivity Agenda. She derided the proposals from Democrats as "government centralized power" and federal regulation of broadband rates. Meanwhile, some Senate Republicans have proposed a $65 billion investment in extending broadband networks deeper into rural areas.
Democrats have tentative plans to move an infrastructure package through Congress this summer. We'll be tracking how Congress addresses not just broadband infrastructure, but issues of affordability and adoption, digital literacy and skills.
- Emergency Broadband Benefit Outreach Toolkit (FCC)
- Here's how you can apply to the FCC for the $50 discount on your broadband bill (USAToday)
- Homework gap: The digital divide crisis leaves millions of kids behind (C|Net)
- Open Access Fiber to Improve U.S. Internet Connectivity (Council on Foreign Relations)
- Six decades ago, Newton Minow called TV a ‘vast wasteland.’ It’s even vaster today (Los Angeles Times)
Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)
- Broadband for all: charting a path to economic grow (Deloitte)
- Price Too High and Rising: The Facts About America’s Broadband Affordability Gap (Free Press)
- ‘I Used to Like School’: An 11-Year-Old’s Struggle With Pandemic Learning (New York Times)
- COVID-19 has forever changed bandwidth usage patterns (OpenVault)
- Fake Comments: How US Companies & Partisans Hack Democracy to Undermine Your Voice (NY Attorney General)
ICYMI from Benton
- Broadband Prices are Soaring. Competition is the Answer. (Kevin Taglang)
- America’s Broadband Moment: Creating a Broadband Competition Policy Agenda (Jonathan Sallet)
- America’s Broadband Moment: Making Broadband Affordable (Jonathan Sallet)
- Does Your State Need More Broadband (Kevin Taglang)
May 11—Fiber to the farmhouse – Strategies and methods for deploying rural fiber networks (Fiber Broadband Association)
May 12—Emergency Broadband Benefit Program Launch (FCC)
May 12—Legal Code: Reframing the Divide by Addressing Broadband Access Through Affordability and Inclusion (Silicon Flatirons)
May 20—May 2021 Open FCC Meeting
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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