The new, three trillion dollar COVID-19 relief proposal (the “HEROES act”) unveiled yesterday by Democratic leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives includes $8.8 billion to fund an Emergency Broadband Benefit for consumers who are eligible for Lifeline phone discounts, or have suffered major income loss due to the pandemic.
The Emergency Broadband Benefit proposal would require the FCC to reimburse internet providers up to $50 per month for discounts on “normal” home broadband bills, i.e. services and prices advertised to the general public as of May 1. (The monthly reimbursement for residents of tribal lands would be up to $75.) Providers could also be reimbursed up to $100 per household for computers or tablets supplied to eligible households.
The Emergency Broadband Benefit is designed to begin immediately upon Congressional approval (the FCC is given only seven days to promulgate the necessary regulations), and is authorized to continue for the duration of the Federally declared COVID-19 public health emergency, plus an additional six months. How long the $8.8 billion appropriated by the HEROES Act could support the program is dependent upon how many households use it and thus is unclear. It would not be supported by the existing Universal Service Fund.
NDIA and allied public interest groups called on Congressional leaders to create a Federal household broadband subsidy two weeks ago. As NDIA Executive Director Angela Siefer said then: “The U.S. is in dire need of a broadband subsidy. The free and low-cost plans of some internet service providers are appreciated but the gaps in eligibility and availability are significant. Lifeline, first and foremost, provides phone support, not broadband support. Students learning in parking lots due to a lack of home internet is completely unacceptable. We must establish a federal broadband subsidy immediately.”
House Democratic leaders first signaled support for the idea in an outline of their “Plan to Connect All Americans to Affordable Broadband Internet” released on May 1.
We would like to note, several significant elements of the “Plan to Connect All Americans” are not part of the HEROES Act, including funding for local digital equity initiatives through a State Digital Equity Capacity Program and a national Digital Equity Competitive Grant Program — the key elements of the Digital Equity Act. NDIA will continue to recommend they be part of a separate infrastructure proposal.
Announcement of the bill is only the first step toward becoming law. NDIA will continue to keep our community updated as to the progress of this bill and those that would support local digital inclusion programs.
NDIA Executive Director Siefer says this should be turning point for digital equity. “Even though WiFi in parking lots and on school buses is innovative, in areas where wireline broadband infrastructure exists, those innovative solutions are bandaids. The goal should be for every household in the U.S. to have broadband service in their home. The Emergency Broadband Benefit addresses the cost barrier to home internet. This bill is essential.”