Emergency Broadband Benefit Program: From Here to Launch in 60 Days

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Friday, March 5, 2021

Weekly Digest

Emergency Broadband Benefit Program: From Here to Launch in 60 Days

 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 March 1-5, 2021

Kevin Taglang
Taglang

On February 26, the Federal Communications Commission adopted rules that will govern the new Emergency Broadband Benefit Program (see Benton's Introducing the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program), aimed at making broadband service more affordable during the COVID-19 pandemic. The FCC aims to launch the program in 60 days, so sometime around April 26. It is an ambitious timeline, especially since Congress just created and funded the program in late December 2020. But with so many people in the U.S. losing jobs and income over the past year, the new discount is desperately needed.

With the decision of the FCC commissioners, most of the responsibility of implementing the new program falls to the FCC's Wireline Competition Bureau and the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC), the company that runs all of the FCC's subsidy programs to ensure universal, affordable telecommunications in the U.S. 

The FCC created a webpage providing additional information about provider approval processes and how to submit an application. See the "Provider FCC Approvals" tab.

On March 4, we got a tad bit more information about the timeline of the program—at least for the companies that are interested in providing the discounted broadband services. Broadband internet access service providers that have previously participated in federal assistance programs (these companies are known in wonkspeak as eligible telecommunications carriers or ETCs), can begin to let USAC know if they will participate in the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program starting March 11. For providers that haven't previously participated in federal assistance programs (known as non-ETCs), a portal to file applications will open on Monday, March 8. Applications must be received by March 22 if these companies want to be eligible to participate in the program when it launches. 

But this week's announcement was just one small step in a series of behind-the-scenes efforts needed to get the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program up and running. Last week, the FCC commissioners voted, if you will, on the bones of the program. It is up to staff to flesh it out—and to do that very quickly. For advocates will concerns and ideas, then, there is still time to impact how the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program will run. As we were reading last week's order, we collated a list of decisions to be made and actions to be taken. As of now, there's no timeline for addressing this list although the Wireline Competition Bureau will announce, at a later date, administrative deadlines and milestones, such as when the EBB Program will begin and when providers may begin enrolling subscribers in the program.

What Providers Can Expect

ETCs can elect to participate in the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program by filing the appropriate information with USAC and do not need to seek approval from the Wireline Competition Bureau. Non-ETCs need approval from the Wireline Competition Bureau to participate in the program. And any provider that wants to employ its own process for verifying that a customer is eligible for the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program discount must also get approval from the Wireline Competition Bureau. March 8 to March 22 is the window for non-ETCs to seek approval to participate in the program prior to the commencement of household enrollments. Applications received after the March 22 deadline will be reviewed on a rolling basis. 

Beginning March 11, providers can submit their forms and required attachments via email to [email protected]

In the coming days, we also can expect the following:

  • The Wireline Competition Bureau will issue additional guidance and instruction as necessary for providers seeking to participate in the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program.
  • The Wireline Competition Bureau will establish the process by which providers seek approval to participate in Emergency Broadband Benefit Program.
  • The Wireline Competition Bureau will administer the application process that will automatically approve provider applications meeting program criteria. 
  • The Wireline Competition Bureau will create and administer an application review process that will expeditiously consider provider applications meeting the criteria.
  • USAC will take the appropriate actions to update, modify, or create the necessary USAC systems to administer the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program.
  • The Wireline Competition Bureau and the FCC's Office of Managing Director will supervise and coordinate with USAC all actions necessary to make USAC databases and systems available for the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program.
  • The Wireline Competition Bureau will develop a process for a provider to submit an alternative verification processes. The bureau will review and approve or reject such submissions within seven days.
  • Specifically for providers checking to see if a household is on Tribal land, USAC will make available its existing comprehensive address verification methods to applicants and providers in the EBB Program, including providers using their own alternative verification process.
  • The Wireline Competition Bureau and USAC will issue any further guidance or instruction necessary to clarify the obligations of Emergency Broadband Benefit Program providers when using USAC databases and the administrative process.

Additional information about USAC's role and the provider election process

What's to Come on Household Eligibility

The Emergency Broadband Benefit Program is aimed at helping low-income households and people who've suffered job loss or furloughs over the past year. For some, like people already enrolled in the FCC's Lifeline program, there's no requirement to further prove eligibility for the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program. The Wireline Competition Bureau and USAC are responsible for ensuring that the right households benefit from Emergency Broadband Benefit Program discounts. Here's what the bureau and USAC are expected to do:

  • USAC will make available an Emergency Broadband Benefit Program consumer portal and application form leveraging the existing National Lifeline Verifier infrastructure.
  • USAC will enable the National Lifeline Verifier to verify three additional eligibility bases that are required by the Consolidated Appropriations Act for the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program: 
    1. participation in free and reduced lunch program under the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act or the school breakfast program under section 4 of the Child Nutrition Act,
    2. people who've suffered substantial loss of income since February 29, 2020, and
    3. receipt of a Federal Pell Grant.
  • Where possible USAC will enable database connections through computer matching agreements with the respective government entities for the three added eligibility programs. Where this is not possible, the Wireline Competition Bureau and USAC will allow eligible households to submit documentation so that USAC can manually process the eligibility information for inclusion in the National Lifeline Verifier. Unless and until such database connections have been enabled, USAC will verify program eligibility based on manual documentation review. The Wireline Competition Bureau will direct USAC to establish documentation criteria for the three added eligibility programs.
  • USAC will establish approval criteria for acceptable identity documentation including a government-issued ID, passport, driver’s license, or Individual Taxpayer Identification Number.
  • USAC will develop a process for eligibility determinations that has the capability to, after a household provides the name of a dependent child’s school, automatically check for Community Eligibility Provision participation against the nationwide lists maintained by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and/or the Food Research & Action Center. USAC will conduct program integrity reviews of a sample of households who enrolled in the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program using this eligibility criteria to confirm program compliance.
  • If feasible within the overall timeframe of the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, USAC will make available a service provider portal or eligibility check application programming interface (API) so that providers can help consumers with the application process.
  • USAC will conduct periodic program integrity reviews to confirm that EBB subscribers located at the same address are in compliance with program requirements.

What About Reimbursements for Providers?

The Emergency Broadband Benefit Program is funded through the $3.2 billion Emergency Broadband Connectivity Fund, created by Congress in the Consolidated Appropriations Act. No more than 2% of the Emergency Broadband Connectivity Fund (or $64 million) is to be used for the administration of the EBB Program. With that in mind, USAC, in coordination with the FCC's Office of the Managing Director, will re-evaluate no later than three months after the start of the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program to determine if there are any administrative funds that can be used to fund reimbursements for service and connected device claims. USAC will continue to regularly report to the Office of the Managing Director its projected budget for its administration of the EBB Program.

In addition, lots of work has to be done so that providers can easily claim and be reimbursed for services provided to eligible consumers—and prevent or detect any fraudulent claims. Providers are required to make several certifications regarding the accuracy of their reimbursement claims:

  • The amount for which they are seeking reimbursement from the Emergency Broadband Connectivity Fund is not more than the standard rate.
  • Each eligible household for which the provider is seeking reimbursement for providing broadband service has not or will not be charged (1) for that offering if the standard rate for that offering is less than or equal to the amount of the  Emergency Broadband Benefit Program benefit for that household; or (2) more for that offering than the difference between the standard rate for that offering and the amount of the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program benefit for that household.
  • Each eligible household for which it is seeking reimbursement will not be required to pay an early termination fee, was not, after December 27, 2020, subject to a mandatory waiting period for the covered broadband Internet service, and will otherwise be subject to the provider’s generally applicable terms and conditions as they are applied to other customers.
  • Each household for which they are seeking a reimbursement for a connected device has been charged more than $10 and less than $50 for the connected device.
  • For providers that are claiming households that they determined to be eligible to enroll in the EBB Program through the alternative verification process, providers must provide a description of that verification process and certify that the process was designed to avoid waste, fraud, and abuse and has been approved.

USAC will conduct extensive training, including webinars, to distribute instructions, and otherwise provide support to broadband providers considering participation in the program. USAC will ensure that interested providers are given access, subject to system and USAC requirements, to the USAC systems essential for the management and processing of reimbursement claims. It will develop an annual certification for all participating providers and a process for its submission. USAC will also modify the Lifeline Claims System to manage claims for reimbursement for connected devices.

Notably, the FCC requires providers to certify that households receiving a fully subsidized service have used the service during the relevant period. If a household has not used their service during the relevant period, then the provider shall not submit a reimbursement claim for service provided to that household until the service is used. To add more accountability and to help ensure that only service that subscribers are using is funded through the program, the FCC requires that providers certify that their service claims for reimbursement meet the usage requirements. To ensure that the program is supporting broadband service that is actually being used, the FCC will not permit providers to seek reimbursement for a service month in which a household did not meet the usage requirements, even if the household meets the usage requirements in subsequent months. To this end, USAC will make any adjustments necessary to the Lifeline Claims System to ensure that providers are prompted to certify that their reimbursement claims meet the usage requirements.

To prevent fraud, waste and abuse, the Consolidated Appropriations Act requires the FCC to adopt audit requirements to ensure that participating providers are in compliance with the program rules. The FCC's Office of the Managing Director will develop and implement an audit process of participating providers. And, within one year of the date of the enactment of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, the FCC’s Office of Inspector General must conduct an audit of the disbursements made to a representative sample of participating providers.

How Temporary is the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program?

By law, the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program will end six months after the end of the COVID-19 emergency period or when the amount in the Emergency Broadband Connectivity Fund is exhausted—whichever comes first. That ambiguity may cause some concern for both providers and consumers when they consider participating in the program. So the FCC understands the importance of transparency regarding the financial state of the program and of developing an informed forecast of the end of the discounts. As the program is implemented, expect to see the following:

  • USAC will publish language describing the limited duration of the benefit and the potential impact on the customer’s bill at the end of the program on USAC’s relevant consumer-facing websites, any USAC-provided application, and the National Lifeline Verifier, and other educational materials.
  • USAC and providers will include on their Emergency Broadband Benefit Program consumer applications a certification for the household to affirm that they understand that the EBB Program is a temporary federal government subsidy that reduces the customer’s broadband Internet access service bill and at the conclusion of the program, the household will be subject to the provider’s undiscounted general rates, terms, and conditions if the household continues to subscribe to the service.
  • The FCC and USAC will develop and publish online a tracker that, at a minimum, displays:
  1. the number of Emergency Broadband Benefit Program households enrolled in the National Lifeline Accountability Database;
  2. the number of net new households enrolling in the program each week; and
  3. the total dollar amount of the reimbursement claims approved to date, disaggregated by monthly amounts for broadband internet access service and associated equipment, as well as connected devices, with historical data remaining so that the public can monitor any trends in the disbursement rates between updates.
  • USAC will develop this tracker and make it available on USAC’s website as well as the FCC’s website. This information will be updated at least every two weeks by USAC, with the goal of weekly updates as the program ramps up.
  • USAC will submit, no later than 6 months after program launch, a report to the FCC that provides information about how households qualified for the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, the claimed support amounts for connected devices and services, the geographic locations of consumers at the county level, and any other information deemed necessary by the Wireline Competition Bureau.
  • USAC will forecast when the Emergency Broadband Connectivity Fund will be able to pay out reimbursement claims only for another 75 to 90 days.
  • Once USAC has identified when the Emergency Broadband Connectivity Fund will be depleted using submitted claims and other relevant information, USAC will notify providers and the public of the expected exhaustion of the fund and the month in which USAC expects to pay out final claims.
  • The FCC will endeavor to provide at least 60 days’ notice before the end of the program.
  • In the event that reimbursement claims in the final month exceed the amount of remaining funds, reimbursements for both service and connected device claims will be paid out on a reduced, pro-rata basis, but in no circumstances will the reimbursement be less than 50% of the provider’s claim for that final month. Subscribers would be responsible for the unreimbursed portion of the final bill.
  • In the final months of the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, after the end date has been forecast, USAC will continue to monitor program activity to determine whether the Emergency Broadband Connectivity Fund will be able to support at least 50% of the claims, paid out on a pro-rata basis, in the expected final month of the program. If USAC’s analysis indicates that the fund will not be able to meet this 50% threshold, USAC will immediately notify the FCC. If FCC staff agree with USAC’s analysis, the Wireline Competition Bureau will direct USAC to pause the reimbursement process for that final month. In that situation where the remaining funds cannot guarantee at least a 50% disbursement on claims in that final month, the FCC will determine how best to use the remaining funds.
  • USAC will develop procedures for implementing an enrollment freeze at the end of the program.

Promoting Emergency Broadband Benefit Program Awareness

A major challenge for the FCC is ensuring low-income households are clearly informed of the existence of the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, the benefits the program offers, who can participate, and how to apply. In addition, broadband providers—some of whom have no prior experience with FCC programs, USAC, and USAC’s processes—will also require information both on how to participate in the program and on how to educate consumers. In the FCC's order it directs:

  • FCC staff and USAC to develop comprehensive provider education and training programs, as well as consumer outreach plans;
  • The FCC's Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau to 1) educate service providers on the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program and 2) engage in consumer outreach to the largest possible number of eligible consumer participants;
  • The Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau and FCC's Office of Native Affairs and Policy to develop educational and informational communications and materials to advertise the program, such as a webpage and digital toolkit, in a printable format and translated into other languages, that can easily be accessed by service providers, organizations, and the public;
  • USAC to develop and implement a communications strategy to provide training and information necessary to successfully participate in the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program to service providers—both ETCs and non-ETCs, Tribal communities and organizations, associations and consumer advocates, the E-Rate community, potential eligible consumers, and the public at large; and 
  • USAC to coordinate with state and federal partners, and community support organizations such as food banks to promote the availability of Lifeline as a supplement to the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program or as an option when the benefit is eliminated.

The FCC expects the communications strategy to include a dedicated, regularly updated webpage and other outreach methods including webinars, bulletins, email campaigns, and direct outreach to providers, eligible consumers, Tribal communities, schools, libraries, and other organizations that serve Emergency Broadband Benefit Program eligible populations.

Additional Changes As Necessary

Once implementation of the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program begins, the FCC or USAC may encounter unforeseen issues or problems with the administration that will need to be resolved. To achieve widespread participation by eligible households in the EBB Program, FCC staff will address and resolve such issues. The FCC order allows for:

  • The Wireline Bureau and the Office of the Managing Director have authority to make necessary adjustments to the program administration and to provide additional detail and specificity to the requirements of the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program to conform with the intent of the FCC order and ensure the efficient functioning of the program.
  • The FCC’s Managing Director has financial oversight of this program to ensure that all financial aspects of the program have adequate internal controls.
  • The Office of the Managing Director may issue additional directions to USAC and program participants.

 

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society will be tracking implementation of the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program every step of the way. Stay abreast by subscribing to our free, Headlines daily digest email newsletter

Quick Bits

Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)

ICYMI from Benton

Upcoming Events

Mar 10 — The Emergency Broadband Benefit: How Will the $3.2 Billion Program Work? (Broadband Breakfast)

Mar 10 — Communications Policy During the Biden Administration (Womble Bond Dickinson)

Mar 12 — Task Force for Reviewing the Connectivity and Technology Needs of Precision Agriculture in the United States (FCC)

Mar 17 — NTIA Grant Programs in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 (NTIA)

Mar 17 — Open Federal Communications Commission Meeting (FCC)

Mar 22 — 12th Annual USF Update Webinar (Kelley Drye)

Mar 22 — Public Libraries and the Pandemic: Digital Shifts and Disparities to Overcome (New America)

Mar 25 — Misinformation and Disinformation Plaguing Online Platforms (House Commerce Committee)

Mar 25 — Increasing Digital Access (Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond)

 

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
Executive Editor, Communications-related Headlines
Benton Institute
for Broadband & Society
727 Chicago Avenue
Evanston, IL 60202
847-328-3040
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