ISPs Shape Rollout Of COVID Internet Subsidies For Families

By Kelcee Griffis
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Law360 (May 11, 2021, 8:54 PM EDT) -- Families in need can begin enrolling for $50 internet subsidies beginning Wednesday morning, but the Federal Communications Commission is leaving many details about how the COVID-19-relief benefits end up in consumers' hands for internet service providers to decide.

The Emergency Broadband Benefit, a $3.2 billion program directly funded by Congress, is expected to last a "number of months," but senior FCC officials told reporters in a Tuesday call that the duration of the program will depend on how many families decide to take advantage of the benefits.

People can enroll in the relief program in one of several ways: by going through an FCC-affiliated website — — to sign up through providers that already offer other FCC subsidies, by mailing in an application, or by calling their preferred provider and asking to sign up. About 825 providers have already committed to participating in the program, an official said.

The EBB will specifically 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 its internet provider.

Beyond those parameters, senior FCC officials emphasized that participating ISPs will be in charge of shaping the details for their individual offerings, including how households composed of multiple roommates or some people who wouldn't qualify for the program on their own may participate.

However, providers may not block customers from enrolling in the program if they are behind on their internet bills, according to the agency.

In an enforcement advisory released Tuesday, the FCC clarified that customers must explicitly ask to be enrolled in the EBB, meaning providers can't automatically switch the plans of existing customers. Users must also pay a copayment of between $10 and $50 for any subsidized devices they purchase through the program.

Providers cannot advertise "free" devices through the program or offer credits that would essentially give them away, as it would circumvent "the policy of requiring households receiving subsidized connected devices to have an ownership stake in the devices," according to the advisory.

Democratic Reps. Frank Pallone of New Jersey and Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania, who helped create the EBB through legislation, said the program's launch is a positive step toward helping the U.S. economy weather the pandemic.

"We encourage anyone who may be struggling to afford internet service to see if they qualify and then contact their internet service provider to apply," they said in a joint statement. "We are committed to ensuring Congress continues its work to expand internet access until every American has reliable, affordable service."

The EBB rollout comes as the FCC is standing up a second pandemic-relief program, the Emergency Connectivity Fund, specifically designed to help students get online for remote learning. FCC officials acknowledged that some households may qualify for both programs and said more information will be forthcoming about how the two programs can work together.

--Editing by Janice Carter Brown.

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