FCC to dish out $3.2B in emergency broadband benefits

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The new head of the broadband mapping program said the maps probably won't be ready until next year. (Getty Images)

The FCC held an open meeting today to discuss its immediate priorities. The meeting was the first one conducted by Acting FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel. One of the top issues discussed today was the new Emergency Broadband Benefit program, which congress has directed the FCC to establish. In addition, the FCC discussed its efforts to accurately map broadband availability across the country. 

On December 27, 2020, the Consolidated Appropriations Act became law, and as part of that, Congress has provided $3.2 billion for the Emergency Broadband Benefit program. Broadband providers that participate in the program will be able to provide discounts of up to $50 a month for internet service and up to $75 a month on tribal lands. They’ll also be able to provide eligible consumers an opportunity to receive a discount on a computer or tablet.

Speaking with the media after the open meeting today, Rosenworcel said, “The emergency broadband program is an appropriated program. It’s different than a Universal Services Fund program. When the funds run out, we’ll have to turn to Congress again. As we start to get the program off the ground, we need to figure out how it might conclude.” 

Jessica Rosenworcel
Jessica Rosenworcel

It’s unclear how long the broadband relief monies will last, but Rosenworcel wants to make sure no one who relies on the program gets “bill shock” at some point in the future.

The emergency broadband program specifies a number of eligibility criteria for the relief funds. Eligible households include those below 130% of the federal poverty guidelines, Medicaid recipients, Pell Grant beneficiaries, people who may have lost their jobs, and households where there is a student eligible under the free and reduced lunch program.

“It’s important to note, Congress suggested that all of those categories were equally eligible,” said Rosenworcel. “We intend to follow the law.”

The FCC is currently working on rules to administer the program, and those rules must be ready in 60 days. The FCC will be using the Universal Service Administrative Company to administer the program.

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Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone (D-NJ) said today, “Fortunately, Democrats and Republicans came together at the end of last Congress to pass the historic Emergency Broadband Benefit program.”

Broadband mapping

The FCC will also get moving a project that is near and dear to Chairwoman Rosenworcel’s heart – broadband mapping.

Congress passed the Broadband DATA Act in March 2020, directing the FCC to update its data collection practices for its maps, and in December 2020 Congress appropriated the funding to carry out this task. Today the FCC appointed Jean Kiddoo to lead the Broadband Data Task Force to oversee the mapping project.

RELATED: FCC adopts new rules for more granular broadband map data collection

“This is going to require an all-hands effort at the agency, with expertise from multiple bureaus and offices,” said Rosenworcel. “It is going to require not just data from carriers but input from consumers and state, local, and Tribal governments who know what is happening on the ground, where they live.”

The Broadband Data Task Force will lead a cross-agency effort to collect detailed data and develop more precise maps about broadband availability.

Commissioner Brendan Carr asked Kiddoo today when the completed maps might be ready. “That’s a hard question,” she said. “We are working very fast on getting the contracting out. And then we have to develop a lot of very complex IT platforms. I think we are talking probably next year, but that is a guess.”