TR Daily Input Sought on Rules for COVID-19 Broadband Discounts
Monday, January 4, 2021

Input Sought on Rules for COVID-19 Broadband Discounts

The FCC’s Wireline Competition Bureau today requested comment on the provision of broadband connectivity support to eligible households from the $3.2 billion Emergency Broadband Benefit Program established by the coronavirus response and relief provisions of the Consolidated Appropriations Act signed by President Trump on Dec. 27.

The legislation aims the support at low-income households, including those financially affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, in the form of $50 per month in broadband service discounts, or $75 per month for households on tribal lands, plus subsidies for connected devices such as computers and tablets (TR Daily, Dec. 22, 2020). In addition, the program allows one reimbursement per household during the emergency period for connected devices, in an amount up to $100, provided the household is charged between $10 and $50 for the device.

In a public notice in WC docket 20-445, the bureau sought input on a range of issues, including the eligibility and election process for participating providers, submission of standard rate information for supported services, use of a rolling review of provider elections, and tracking and verifying household eligibility for support.

Comments are due Jan. 25 and replies are due Feb. 16. Proposed rule language is appended to the public notice.

In a statement, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said, "We’re excited to get to work on this new program, which responds to my call last June for Congress to fund a program to advance the Keep Americans Connected initiative that we launched when the pandemic started. The Emergency Broadband Benefit Program will go a long way to ensuring that low-income American families and veterans are connected during the pandemic, and that students can engage in remote learning with support from the program’s funding for connected devices. Our staff is moving quickly to stand up this program so we can quickly direct funding to consumers who need the help, while also guarding against waste, fraud, and abuse. We look forward to getting public input on how best to structure this effort."

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said, "This pandemic has demonstrated that access to broadband is no longer nice-to-have, it is need-to-have for everyone, everywhere. But the truth is the cost of broadband service can be a hardship for many families, especially during the ongoing crisis. According to the Pew Research Center, almost one-third of broadband users and one-third of smartphone users report they worry about not being able to afford service during this pandemic. With so much of modern life now dependent on internet access, no one should have to choose between paying a broadband bill and paying rent or buying groceries."

She added, "The good news is that we have new tools to help. As required by law, today the FCC takes its first step establishing the Emergency Broadband Benefit by seeking public input. It’s not a moment too soon. We need to find ways to get 100% of us connected in this country and this program is an essential part of making that happen."

Commissioner Geoffrey Starks said, ""Tens of millions of Americans do not have broadband simply because they cannot afford it. No family should have to decide between keeping the lights on or getting the household connected, especially during a public health crisis that has made being online more essential than ever. The Emergency Broadband Benefit is poised to connect tens of millions of Americans and to jumpstart a long-term focus on broadband affordability at the FCC. This is long overdue for struggling Americans, including those who are recently unemployed due to the pandemic."

He added, "I have great expectations for this program. If we’re successful, the Emergency Broadband Benefit will reach more low-income people than any previous FCC effort to close the digital divide. That’s a high bar, and we need robust public input to clear that hurdle. I look forward to engaging with a wide range of commenters as we develop this vital program over the next two months."

Commissioner Starks urged commenters to "focus in particular on how we can encourage every eligible American to access this emergency benefit. We need to use every tool at our disposal to educate the public about the Emergency Broadband Benefit, promote robust provider participation, and make it as easy as possible to sign up. Affordable broadband has never been closer for millions of families, and we must execute.

"I also encourage commenters to focus on consumer protections. We know, for example, that it may be challenging to communicate how long this benefit will last, given the uncertainties about how long it will take to exhaust the appropriated funds. I welcome detailed feedback on how we can ensure transparency and clear communication with beneficiaries," he added.

Service providers that already have eligible telecommunications carrier (ETC) designation do not need to seek FCC approval to participate in the new program. The legislation requires the FCC to establish an expedited application and approval process for non-ETCs, and the public notice seeks input on how such a process should function.

"We propose to require all providers that wish to participate in the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program to submit a notice to USAC indicating their election. We propose that such notice indicate, at least: (1) the states in which it plans to participate, (2) a statement that, in each such state, it was a ‘broadband provider’ within the meaning of the Consolidated Appropriations Act as of December 1, 2020, (3) whether it seeks to participate in each state because it is either a designated eligible telecommunications carrier or is seeking designation by the Commission to participate (or both), (4) whether the provider intends to distribute connected devices in each such state, (5) a description of any Internet service offerings for which it plans to seek reimbursement in each state, and (6) documentation demonstrating the standard rates for the services for which it may claim reimbursement from the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program," the public notice says.

The Consolidated Appropriations Act "limits the Emergency Broadband Benefit to be ‘no more than the standard rate’ for an Internet service offering (and associated equipment), which it defines as ‘the monthly retail rate for the applicable tier of broadband internet access service as of December 1, 2020, excluding any taxes or other governmental fees.’ To avoid processing elections for providers that cannot receive any reimbursement, we construe the statute as limiting participation to broadband providers offering service as of December 1, 2020. Similarly, we believe the submission of documentation demonstrating the standard rates for the services for which a provider may claim reimbursement from the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program will allow USAC to more quickly verify that a broadband provider does in fact qualify to participate and will facilitate the processing of claims. We seek comment on these views," the notice adds.

It seeks input on the best way for providers to submit standard rates and on the best way to account for contract rates.

In light of the Act’s requirement for the FCC to expedite providers’ access to the Lifeline National Eligibility Verifier to determine if a household qualifies for eligibility for the new program under the Act’s Lifeline test, the notice proposes that "participating providers be required to have their agents and other enrollment representatives registered with the Representative Accountability Database" and proposes that "once USAC [the Universal Service Administrative Co.] has verified a broadband provider’s election notice, it should expeditiously process and prioritize registrations from such providers and take any other steps needed to facilitate access by participating providers to these databases."

The Act also allows for household eligibility based on participation in federal free and reduced school lunch programs; "substantial loss of income" since Feb. 29, 2020"; receipt of a federal Pell Grant in the current award year; or eligibility under a service provider’s existing low-income or COVID-19 program, subject to FCC approval.

Noting that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s "Community Eligibility Provision allows the nation’s highest poverty schools and districts to serve breakfast and lunch at no cost to all enrolled students without collecting household applications," the notice asks for comment "on how households with students in these Community Eligibility Provision schools should be considered eligible households for the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program. More broadly, how can the Commission facilitate the ability of schools to connect with their students for the purposes of remote learning?"

For providers seeking to participate in the new program in areas where they are not ETCs, the notice proposes "that any broadband provider seeking to participate make the Emergency Broadband Benefit available across all of its service areas in each of the states in which it is approved to participate" and that "broadband providers adopt a plan to combat waste, fraud, and abuse similar to the compliance plans required of non-facilities-based carriers seeking approval to participate in the Lifeline program."

The Act does not define household, the notice observes. It seeks comment "on using the definition of ‘household’ provided in our Lifeline rules for purposes of administering the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program."

It adds, "To track the eligibility of households and prevent duplicative support, we propose to require all participating providers to track enrollments of eligible households in the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program in the National Lifeline Accountability Database. This proposal would require that the National Lifeline Accountability Database be able to associate a subscriber record with up to two providers—one Lifeline provider and one Emergency Broadband Benefit provider. Should the Commission apply the same processes used for Lifeline participation in the National Lifeline Accountability Database to the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program? Where two or more subscribers reside at the same address, should the Commission require the subscriber to certify that no other person in the subscriber’s economic household is receiving a benefit through the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program? Should there be a limitation on the number of benefits per address regardless of the number of households at that address? Should additional enrollments at a single residential address require a separate, more rigorous verification process? Should eligible households be allowed to receive more than one connected device through the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, for example, if they change service to a new participating provider? We seek comment on how to identify and prevent duplicative support."

The notice also asks whether further clarity is needed on eligible services and associated equipment. "Would associated equipment include, for example, the monthly rental costs for modems and/or routers that are offered as part and parcel of an Internet service offering? Is there other customer-premises equipment that should be eligible for reimbursement?" it asks.

Given the lunch program and Pell Grant eligibility tests, the notice says, "[W]e conclude that the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program is, in part, designed to ensure that program beneficiaries are able to meaningfully access and participate in remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. To ensure that eligible households with students are able to use their benefit to participate in such activities, we propose that a connected device provided through the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program should be expected to support video conferencing platforms and other software essential to ensure full participation in online learning. We seek comment on whether the Commission should impose minimum system requirements for connected devices supported by this program and, if so, what those system requirements should be."

It asks whether the FCC should "require a participating provider to demonstrate the retail value or the costs of connected devices to prevent waste."

Regarding the enhanced support for eligible households on tribal lands, the notice proposes to use the same definition of tribal lands as used in the Commission’s Lifeline program.

"We seek comment on applying the definition of Tribal lands and using existing USAC processes for verifying that an eligible household lives on Tribal lands and is therefore eligible to receive the increased monthly discount. Moreover, we seek comment on our proposal to rely on a household’s participation in the Tribal-specific assistance programs. Are there other accommodations the Commission should consider to ensure that eligible households on Tribal lands and the providers that serve them are able to participate in the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program?" the notice asks.

It also seeks input on the best methods for promoting awareness of the new program, the appropriate audit requirements, the use of existing enforcement authority, and reimbursement of USAC from the $3.2 billion appropriation for its costs in administering the program.

It asks about requirements for providers to explain to participating households the terms and conditions they will be subject to at the conclusion of the program and its benefits. —Lynn Stanton, [email protected]

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