June 13, 2021

Volume XI, Number 164

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FCC Launches Consumer Broadband Device and Service Program

Plan Provides Subsidies for Device Purchases and Internet Service Subscriptions

On May 12, 2021, the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) began enrolling eligible households in its Emergency Broadband Benefit (“EBB”) program.  The EBB program provides eligible households with up to a $50 monthly discount on their internet plans (and up to $75 a month discounted for households located on Tribal lands).[1]  The EBB also includes funding for a one-time discount of up to $100 for a tablet, computer, or other specified device for qualifying households.[2]

Funded by the stimulus package signed into law at the end of December, 2020, the EBB will make a total amount of $3.2 billion in discounts on broadband services and equipment available to consumers.  As Acting FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel noted, the program creates “a new way for disconnected Americans to access the internet to carry out their day-to-day life, so they can reach the virtual classroom, take advantage of telehealth, and seek new employment opportunities.”[3]

The immediate goal of the program is simple: to ensure Americans have access to the internet to live their lives successfully.  The COVID-19 pandemic has made online learning, teleworking, and telehealth the rule and not the exception to everyday life—and the changes that the pandemic has created will linger.  Some have even stated that the “program reflects one clear lesson from COVID-19: An Internet connection has become just as important to American life as electricity and water.”[4]

The EBB program is also a long-term opportunity to further prioritize the expansion of broadband access in the United States, especially in rural communities lacking broadband infrastructure.  The money allotted to the FCC for the program is intended to reimburse service providers who offer these $50 and $75 discounts to eligible households.[5]  This reimbursement program could serve as further incentive for broadband providers to expand their service areas, their lower-cost service offerings, and overall access.  Indeed, over 825 broadband providers are already taking part in the program.[6]  The EBB program also dovetails with other broadband subsidy programs, such as the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (“RDOF”), which will invest more than $20 billion over a 10-year period in the construction of rural broadband networks.[7]

The program further aligns with the Biden administration’s inclusion of broadband expansion as a critical aspect of its infrastructure legislation, with the hope to “bring affordable, reliable, high-speed broadband to every American, including the more than 35 percent of rural Americans who lack access to broadband at minimally acceptable speeds.”[8] This focus indicates the pervasive and still-growing sense of the essential nature of broadband internet access.

The EBB program is the largest American federal program to assist communications consumers with device payments in more than 30 years.[9]  This program could be a boon for device manufacturers and distributors, as well as internet service providers as more people can afford their services and products.  It remains to be seen how many exactly, but thousands of additional computer, tablet, and other tech devices will be sold because of this program.  The program may also spur the development and manufacture of new lower-cost devices and supplement the low-cost internet service options.

FOOTNOTES

[1] FCC News, Emergency Broadband Benefit Starts Today, May 12, 2021.

[2] Id.

[3] Sue Marek, FCC will begin emergency broadband enrollment on May 12, Fierce Wireless, May 3, 2021.

[4] Geoffrey A. Fowler, The government wants to pay your Internet bill for a few months. Here’s what you need to do., New York Times, May 12, 2021, .

[5] Nadia Dreid, Senators Want Audit Of FCC Emergency Broadband Program, Law 360, May 3, 2021, .

[6] FCC.gov, Emergency Broadband Benefit Providers (last visited May 12, 2021).

[7] Tyler Cooper, Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) – Map, Auction, and Analysis, Broadband Now, March 17, 2021.

[8] Marguerite Reardon, Biden promises broadband for all in $2 trillion infrastructure plan, CNet, Mar. 31, 2021.

[9] Geoffrey A. Fowler, The government wants to pay your Internet bill for a few months. Here’s what you need to do., New York Times, May 12, 2021.

Copyright © 2021, Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton LLP.National Law Review, Volume XI, Number 134
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About this Author

Dave Thomas, Telecommunications Attorney, Sheppard Mullin, Law Firm
Partner

Mr. Thomas is a partner in the Business Trial Practice Group in the firm's Washington D.C. office.

Mr. Thomas has a national practice in the telecommunications and broadband communications industries. His practice focuses on the deployment of competitive networks and services, with a particular emphasis on representing broadband providers in matters involving local franchising, rights-of-way, pole attachments, and similar issues.

202-469-4918
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