Tucked deep inside the $900 billion coronavirus relief bill signed into law by then-President Trump last December was $3.2 billion to give some Americans a break on internet costs.
And this week, the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program is officially open for business and set to offer qualified internet users a break on their monthly bills. The program will provide a price break of up to $50 a month on broadband service ($75 on qualifying tribal lands) and a one-time benefit of up to $100 towards a new computer.
Broadband advocates were quick to hail the program as a first step toward closing the deep disparities in internet access and speeds depending on where you live.
The program will “help narrow the broadband affordability gap for low-income households in the short-term” said Olivia Wein, staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center, in a statement Tuesday but added that “a permanent affordability solution is urgently needed.”
Two of the key lawmakers behind the program, Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D., N.J.) and Mike Doyle (D., Pa.) said they are "thrilled that the FCC is implementing [the program] quickly."
"It’s time to get serious about bridging the digital divide, and in that fight, affordability is half the battle," they said.
The other half of the battle is internet speeds and basic access. Other money in the December relief bill was directed towards efforts to improve internet connections themselves.
'An essential part' of the plan for broadband
The Broadband Benefit Program is being overseen by the Federal Communications Commission and provides blocks of money to broadband providers, who then can pass along the benefit to their customers.
The FCC is encouraging people to see if they qualify via a new website (those that fit the criteria will then need to head to their local internet service provider to receive the benefit). Online tools also direct customers to broadband providers in their area that are taking part in the program.
Jessica Rosenworcel, acting chairwoman of the FCC, called the benefit one piece of the overall effort to get all Americans connected.
To be eligible, the household receiving the benefit has a range of ways to qualify: from being a current participant in assistance programs like SNAP, or receiving a Federal Pell Grant this year or having an income that is at or below 135% of federal poverty guidelines.
Efforts from industry groups like USTelecom and Microsoft have tried to map the massive gaps in broadband access around the country. And research from a group called BroadbandNow estimates that 42 million Americans are without access to broadband internet. Studies vary: the Biden administration estimates that “more than 30 million Americans live in areas where there is no broadband infrastructure that provides minimally acceptable speeds.”
USTelecom is a Washington-based association that represents broadband and technology companies, including Verizon, the parent company of Yahoo Finance. In a statement hailing the new program, USTelecom President and CEO Jonathan Spalter said that a “broad range of providers across the country that eagerly stepped up to participate in the EBB program is another sign of broadband providers’ commitment to delivering affordable connectivity solutions.”
In a recent interview after the program was announced, Spalter focused on the education benefits of the new broadband programs: “We cannot allow kids to have to sit in parking lots at Taco Bells to do their homework,” he said.
Some people, especially in rural areas, haven’t been able to keep up amid widespread distance learning and stay-at-home orders during the pandemic. The cause is often a lack of access or inability to afford an internet connection. A Rand study found that just 30% of teachers in high-poverty schools reported that all or nearly all of their students had internet access at home, while 83% of teachers in low-poverty schools said all or nearly all their students had access.
As part of his infrastructure plan, Biden is pushing for a big additional investment in broadband access. The president wants to spend $100 billion on broadband initiatives with the goal of 100% high-speed broadband coverage in the years ahead.
Ben Werschkul is a writer and producer for Yahoo Finance in Washington, DC.