The Consolidated Appropriations Acts of 2021 included a $900 Billion stimulus package that would create the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program (EBB) to address the needs of those who either do not have access or cannot afford to maintain access to the internet during the pandemic. The EBB provides a reimbursement to eligible households up to $50 for eligible services, up to $75 for those who reside on tribal lands, and a single reimbursement of up to $100 off connected devices provided by the Internet Service Provider (ISP), such as computers or laptops, if the charge for that device is more than $10 but less than $50.
Released January 4, 2021, the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) issued a public notice entitled “Wireline Competition Bureau Seeks Comment on Emergency Broadband Connectivity Fund Assistance.” This notice requests public comment on how to best implement the program. The EBB is funded using the Emergency Broadband Connectivity Fund within the Department of Treasury totaling $3.2 Billion. Initial comments were due on January 25, 2021. Commenters include Education SuperHighway, the State E-rate Coordinators Association (SECA), AT&T, Comcast, U.S. Telecom, The Cherokee Nation, and the Navajo Nation Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (NNTRC).
Within some of the comments posted, there are many general agreements and differentiation on who should aid in verifying households; the process of verifying these households and the constraints of these methods; how non-eligible telecommunication companies (Non-ETCs) can participate in the program; control, and equity of the funding available; consumer protections, consumer selection, and eligible services/components.
Generally, commenters agree, the Universal Service Administration Company (USAC) should handle the verification process. USAC already handles the regulatory and compliance function of the E-rate program. Their experience with this type of verification makes them optimally suited to take on this task. Where this breaks down is on how the verification of eligible households should be held to be verified by USAC.
Those such as Education SuperHighway and SECA believe that since the schools and school districts already have a handle on providing services to students at home, or the fact that they work closely with student and their families will better allow them to initially verify that families/households are qualified for the program and will help to aid participation by adopting E-rate standards and applying them to these programs. An example of this is in using the National School Lunch Program or Community Eligibility Program to establish who is and is not eligible for the program. Other ISPs believe that the statutorily defined process of using the using the National Lifeline Accountability Database (NLAD), or National Verifier—given they obtain access to NSLP and other data—can handle verification and eligibility of the program themselves via USAC and its administration of the verification process. The problem arises that there may be the impossibility of releasing such information outside of school, the district, or the department of education within a state due to either federal, state, or local laws prohibiting the release of an individual’s data. This in turn strengthens the argument that the school districts should aid in the verification and eligibility process with USAC.
Moreover, the issues of the actual service come into question. What types of services are eligible? What about increases in speeds? Data caps? Charges for rented equipment such as modems and routers? ISPs have addressed some of these concerns while education/E-rate groups have addressed others and a consensus has seemed to come together. First is the issue of what speed. During the pandemic, it has been noticed that even those with access to internet do not have sufficient bandwidth to even connect and participate in remote learning. Education SuperHighway and SECA have both suggested that a minimum bandwidth requirement of 25 MB of download speed and 3 MB of upload speed be made available.
Within this “scope of service” question, ISPs have provided further acknowledgment that there needs to be clarity. The statute allows for standard services as of December 1, 2020 to be the base for, presumably, bandwidth and cost. ISPs believe that this is not sufficient. To best serve those who need this most, there needs to be other clauses that allow for grandfathered services (services that ran on a promotion as of Dec. 1, 2020, but are no longer active), change in increased speeds and data caps that did not affect a previous price set, and the cost of rental equipment critical to running a service such as modems/routers to be eligible for reimbursement under the EBB. ISPs believe this needs to be addressed so they can reach as many people as they can while protecting consumers. ISPs also believe that they should not constrict consumers to one service and that they should have their pick of services, which is currently unclear in the legislation.
There is also agreement, however varied, that the end of the program need assurances to protect the consumer from a continuing service that they, ordinarily, may not be able to afford. Education groups have suggested setting a defined end date and an opt-in option to continue the service that ISP is providing. ISPs have called upon the FCC to create a tracker that shows what funds, and how much, is still available to those seeking service under the EBB. This would include forcing the FCC to notify providers within 90 days of the remaining funds being depleted. This time would be used to contact the consumer and make further arrangements with them regarding the service they are providing. This differs from the opt-in option that others have proposed because a lack of communication could easily breakdown and then the consumer would be left playing catch-up with a new bill that is no longer being subsidized. Other ISPs have also made no mention of even connecting with the consumer. In an evaluation of their comments, they suggest it would be up to the consumer to follow a complicated regulatory process and for them to contact the ISP to either continue or discontinue the service.
Finally, many comments revolved around Non-ETCs. The program as it exists, almost includes automatic inclusion of ETCs that have been verified and around since April 1, 2020. However, some rural communities rely on a provider that may not be a federally recognized ETC. Tribal communities have especially recognized this as a problem area. The agreement is centered around creating a short and effective period that would allow Non-ETCs to apply for eligibility to participate to better serve consumers that need the use of the EBB. Suggestions have ranged from establishing a defined submission and deadline period to creating a seven-day window in which the application must be reviewed by the FCC from the date of submission.
Reply comments are due on February 16, 2021. Below are links to prominent comments submitted in the initial round.