More Than 1M Households Sign Up For FCC's Broadband Help

By Christopher Cole
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Law360 (May 20, 2021, 7:20 PM EDT) -- There has been strong demand for the FCC's new Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, with more than 1 million households signing up since it went live just over a week ago, agency leaders said Thursday.

As the Federal Communications Commission anticipated, eligible Americans jumped at the chance to get help paying their internet bills. The $3.2 billion program, which lawmakers funded as part of December's coronavirus rescue package to get more people access to critical broadband services during the pandemic, went online May 12.

Households in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and American Samoa are taking part in enrollment, the FCC announced during its open meeting Thursday. More than 900 broadband providers have agreed to participate.

"The high demand we've seen for the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program demonstrates what many of us already knew to be true — too many families are struggling to get online, even in 2021. Help is here," Jessica Rosenworcel, FCC acting chairwoman, said in a statement. "As an agency, we're continuing to focus our efforts on reaching as many communities as possible, so they can get the support they need."

Advocates of broadband expansion view the emergency program as a stopgap, which was a congressional priority because of the so-called "digital divide" that was exacerbated by the public health crisis. The pool of money is expected to dwindle quickly, leading to calls for more permanent funding sources and federal subsidy reform.

The EBB will subsidize up to $50 of a qualifying household's monthly internet bill, or up to $75 of monthly internet service on tribal lands. It can also cover $100 toward equipment, such as laptops and tablets, if a household purchases the equipment through its internet provider.

The emergency benefit program's popularity may have been borne out by some reported technical issues with the site. One provider told lawmakers Tuesday that the EBB site had apparently crashed due to demand, which the FCC did not confirm.

Asked about the reported crash Thursday, Rosenworcel said that as the FCC runs the first and biggest broadband affordability program, it's keeping a close eye on the system daily. FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr said he could not verify whether individual users had a problem, but he's confident the team is going to look at the issue.

There are several ways that households can qualify for the EBB, such as through their use of assistance programs like SNAP, Medicaid, Lifeline or if a child relies on reduced-price school meals programs. The benefit is also available to households that are eligible for a broadband provider's existing COVID-19 relief program, those who have received a Federal Pell Grant during the current award year, and low-income households that suffered a large loss in income during the pandemic due to job loss or furlough since Feb. 29, 2020.

Brandon Forrester, national organizer for internet rights and platform accountability at MediaJustice, urged the creation of a permanent benefit in a Thursday statement.

"The Emergency Broadband Benefit Program has the potential to help millions of families, too often people of color and other communities who have been historically divested from, get connected online and have access to everything the internet makes possible and is necessary for today," Forrester said. "The high cost of high-quality internet service has posed a persistent barrier that keeps lower-income families from the resources they need to work, live and learn."

Brian Hurley, ACA Connects vice president of regulatory affairs, told Law360 in an email Thursday that the industry group is "thrilled that more than 300 of its member companies are participating in the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program. The high demand for this temporary benefit demonstrates the need for a permanent, sustainable funding mechanism to connect low-income households with robust, high-speed broadband service going forward."

--Additional reporting by Kelcee Griffis. Editing by Regan Estes.

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