Affordable broadband is finally within reach

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Currently, the Federal Communications Commission is trying to figure out how to operationalize the Emergency Broadband Benefit program, and early in Jan 2021 released a Notice of Inquiry to ask for public comments. While we applaud the Benefit Program, the FCC must ensure the eligibility and enrollment requirements are streamlined and build a path to make the benefit permanent through Lifeline. The FCC must not only clarify but take the lead on three key points: eligibility, responsibility, sustainability.

  • Eligibility: For this benefit ultimately to be successful, verification and ease of use for providers is necessary. The Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC), in the past, has had minimal success in driving coordination on eligibility and take up without the support and bully pulpit of the FCC.
  • Responsibility: It is folly to believe that those who qualify for the program in April, may suddenly be able to afford an average broadband subscription in September. As a result, billing and program transparency is required and participants should be notified of these conditions in plain language.
  • Sustainability: We join those who argue that the FCC must increase the Lifeline Program to $50/month and increase eligibility. Moreover, all broadband providers should be required to provide a low-cost subscription tier. Jonathan Sallet at the Benton Institute suggests that such a tier should cost no more than $10 a month and offer 50mbps download/50 mbps upload. A mandated low-cost tier would go a long way to increasing subscriptions and making these subscriptions sustainable.

An FCC that cares to bridge digital divides must use the full authority of its pulpit to help people through the pandemic and beyond if we are to truly build back better.

[Harin Contractor was the former Economic Policy Advisor to the US Secretary of Labor. He also founded the Data Analytics team at USAC. Christopher Ali, is an Associate Professor in the Department of Media Studies at the University of Virginia and Benton Faculty Research Fellow. He is author of the forthcoming book with MIT Press, "Farm Fresh Broadband: The Politics of Rural Connectivity."]

Affordable broadband is finally within reach