Law360 (February 22, 2021, 7:20 PM EST) -- Acting FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel floated a proposal Monday that would dole out $3.2 billion in federal connectivity subsidies to families hard-hit by the coronavirus pandemic, proposing that all broadband providers may participate and households that already qualify for low-income benefits may receive the discounts.
Along with using federal programs such as Pell Grants and free or reduced school lunches as participation benchmarks, Rosenworcel proposed that families that "experienced a substantial loss of income since Feb. 29, 2020," should also qualify.
"I'm proud to advance a proposal to my colleagues to implement this program so we can help as many eligible households as possible," Rosenworcel said in a statement. "With the help of the Emergency Broadband Benefit, we have a new way for households to access virtual learning, for patients to connect to telehealth providers, and for those struggling in this pandemic to learn new online skills and seek their next job."
Lawmakers approved the Emergency Broadband Benefit program in December as part of a larger COVID-19 rescue package. The broadband component is supposed to subsidize up to $50 of a qualifying household's monthly internet bill, or up to $75 of monthly internet service on tribal lands.
The program can additionally cover $100 toward equipment, such as laptops and tablets, if a household purchases the equipment through their internet provider.
Now that Rosenworcel has shared the proposal with her three FCC colleagues, they must review the proposed framework and then vote on whether to approve it.
"Once that is complete, the law requires us to review requests from interested providers who want to participate in the program, and we will also continue to develop the system we will use to administer the program," Rosenworcel said in a statement. "We are working hard to be able to announce the start date for the program."
Although the evenly divided FCC has uniformly expressed support for an emergency broadband program, Republican and Democratic members seem to have differing opinions on which households should be prioritized for the aid.
Last week, Republican FCC Commissioners Brendan Carr and Nathan Simington suggested that the wording of Congress' funding mandate should be construed to primarily serve distance-learning needs, while Rosenworcel and fellow Democratic Commissioner Geoffrey Starks said that many Americans are equally in need of aid.
--Editing by Philip Shea.
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