The FCC under its acting Democratic chairwoman, Jessica Rosenworcel, raced to stand up the program after Congress authorized it as part of a sweeping $2 trillion coronavirus aid package lawmakers approved in December. It may take up to two months before Americans can take advantage of it; the government must still fine-tune its systems so that families can apply for, and providers can receive, the emergency benefits. That task is likely to be a tall one for Washington, which historically has struggled to deploy complicated technology under tight time constraints.
Once it is up and running, though, federal policymakers, Internet service providers, educators and consumer advocates anticipate it will provide an immense financial boost to Americans who need the help at a time of high unemployment and economic dislocation. The broad support for the measure has generated political momentum for crafting a more permanent replacement that would help Americans obtain and pay for broadband services once the $3.2 billion fund runs dry.
“This is a program that will help those at risk of digital disconnection,” Rosenworcel said in a statement, citing the fact some students have had to sit in parking lots just to obtain wireless Internet to do their homework. “In short, this program can make a meaningful difference in the lives of people across the country.”
The new broadband program highlights Washington’s new, urgent campaign to close the country’s gap between those who can access the Internet and those who cannot, laid bare by the coronavirus pandemic that forced families to work, learn and communicate primarily online. At least 18 million Americans still lack speedy, reliable Web connections, the FCC found in a report released last June. Government officials said the number probably is much higher.
The U.S. government spends about $9 billion annually to help fund the buildout of broadband infrastructure nationwide, subsidize low-income Americans’ phone bills and help schools equip their classrooms with speedy access to the Web. But the aid at times has been riddled by mismanagement and neglect, undermining Washington’s efforts to address long-standing digital inequalities that disproportionately affect low-income families, people of color and students.
The FCC’s new emergency broadband benefit is intended to provide at least a short-term boost for these Americans while expanding the number of families who are eligible for some federal support. More than 33 million may be able to obtain the monthly aid, according to Free Press, a public-interest advocacy group, which said the number probably will be higher. Those eligible include families whose income is no greater than 135 percent of the federal poverty guidelines and others who participate in programs such as reduced school lunches.
The discounts are limited to one per household. Some families also may be eligible for a one-time credit of $100 to help them purchase a device to access broadband service. They will have to apply to receive the aid, which will be paid directly to Internet providers that register with the U.S. government and obtain permission to participate. Companies are not required to accept the benefits under the program.
AT&T said Friday morning it intends to participate. CenturyLink, Charter, Comcast, Frontier, T-Mobile and Verizon did not immediately commit to accepting the emergency benefits, although many companies and their trade groups have said in recent days they support the FCC’s work and intend to review its new implementing rules. The FCC voted unanimously late Thursday to start the program.
“Closing the affordability gap is vital to ensuring everyone has a chance to get ahead and participate in society,” said Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the Senate architect of the program. He said he hopes to either extend the benefit or revise other government programs to provide families with a more lasting digital safety net.
“Nearly every aspect of education, health care, work and communication require reliable broadband,” Wyden continued, “so it’s high time to stop treating it like a luxury.”
The entire benefit system may take weeks to set up, meaning families aren’t yet able to apply and may not start to see any aid until April, experts predict. But some public-interest groups — mindful of the federal government’s past missteps — have expressed fears in recent weeks that early hiccups could delay the emergency credits even further. They have aired particular concern with the technology the FCC plans to use to accept most applications and verify that Americans are eligible to receive the aid.
The technology in question is called the National Verifier, an online application tool that the government has used in the past to enroll people in another low-income subsidy program. The verification system is supposed to draw on state and federal data sources to help Americans determine easily whether they qualify to participate in Lifeline, which subsidizes millions of Americans’ monthly phone bills. But fewer than half of states as of last summer had actually integrated their data properly with the National Verifier, a government watchdog found in January. The digital deficiencies meant that people in these states are more likely to be declared ineligible for federal help even when they qualify for it, the report said.
The troubles with the National Verifier first surfaced during the Trump administration, when the Republican-led FCC under then-Chairman Ajit Pai sought to implement a series of massive cuts to the Lifeline program, a Washington Post investigation found. The shortcomings threaten to create fresh technological headaches in delivering new emergency broadband benefits, warned the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute, which asked the commission this month to double down on technical upgrades before payments begin.
“The emergency nature of this program will likely demand less-than-perfect procedures in the interest of getting relief to people as quickly as possible,” the OTI said, “but the Commission must adopt sound verification procedures.”
The new broadband benefits are expected to be available for only a few months, until the total $3.2 billion authorized by Congress runs out. But the unprecedented size of the fund — and the expected early demand for the dollars — has left Democratic policymakers and telecom giants in rare accord over the need for a more permanent expansion of the government’s digital safety net.
Without congressional action, millions of Americans in a matter of months may see increases in their bills — or find themselves owing monthly sums they cannot pay. The sudden drop-off could send some families right back into the digital darkness.
“There’s no sense in wasting a crisis,” John Stankey, the chief executive of AT&T, said at a company event Wednesday.
Stankey praised Congress for committing to the subsidy, which will benefit telecom giants’ efforts to retain customers behind on their bills or attract new ones. But he also acknowledged the program’s limitations: “It was more of a Band-Aid,” he said. “As a result of that, by definition, it will probably be inadequate because it is not intended to be an appropriation in perpetuity.”
Speaking at a news conference last week, Rosenworcel similarly stressed the government needed to seize the “opportunity for helping those people stay in that service, even after the program might end.”
“When the funds run out,” she said, “we’ll have to turn to Congress again.”