The Federal Communications Commission unanimously voted late Thursday to adopt the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program—a $3.2 billion dollar initiative meant to lower the cost of internet services for the tens of millions of families struggling with connectivity during the ongoing pandemic.
The Commission will offer eligible households of up to $50 dollars per month for broadband access, or up to $75 dollars per month if their home is built on designated Tribal lands. Those that qualify will also be getting a one-time discount of up to $100 dollars off a tablet or computer. FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel stated that she expects the Program to be open to eligible recipients “within the next 60 days.”
Per the FCC, the Program is open to households that are already plugged into a pandemic-relief program offered by their broadband provider, or those that are part of the FCC’s Lifeline program. It also includes Pell grant and Medicaid recipients along with those that have “lost jobs and seen their income reduced in the last year.”
“This is a program that will help those at risk of digital disconnection. It will help those sitting in cars in parking lots just to catch a Wi-Fi signal to go online for work. It will help those lingering outside the library with a laptop just to get a wireless signal for remote learning,” Rosenworcel added. “In short, this program can make a meaningful difference in the lives of people across the country.”
The ongoing pandemic has shone a pretty harsh spotlight on the so-called “digital divide” that keeps swaths of rural and low-income households from reliable access to the internet they’d need for—among other things—attending classes or looking for jobs. On paper, the FCC estimates that just over 21 million Americans lack access to reliable, high-speed internet, but that number is likely much higher. One recent report from the researchers at BroadbandNow, for example, put the number of disconnected Americans closer to 42 million—about twice the FCC’s estimates.
Hopefully, this new FCC initiative can help. The $3.2 billion dollar sum was approved by Congress as part of the $900 billion dollar COVID-19 relief package late December. Congressional leaders have also set aside another $3.8 billion dollars for other broadband initiatives, like improving the FCC’s broadband mapping efforts and pulling out preexisting Huawei and ZTE gear from U.S. networks.