The FCC on Thursday unveiled a new program that will dole out some much needed financial help to Americans stuck on the wrong side of the digital divide.
During the pandemic, countless Americans have struggled to afford basic utilities and services, including broadband. An estimated 42 million Americans lack access to any broadband whatsoever. Tens of millions more can’t afford service thanks to the ongoing monopolization of the US telecom sector resulting in a lack of meaningful competition.
To tackle the problem, Congress recently passed the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, which set aside $3.2 billion to help Americans afford internet access. As part of the law, Congress mandated that the FCC develop the framework of the program within 60 days.
Under details of the FCC’s Emergency Broadband Benefit program unveiled today by the FCC, low income households that qualify will receive discounts of up to $50 a month for broadband service, and up to $75 a month for those living on Tribal lands. It also will provide a one-time discount of up to $100 on a computer or tablet for eligible households.
The money will technically go to broadband providers, who will then be responsible for ensuring that individual households receive the subsidy (a process that hasn’t historically always worked out that well in other FCC programs). Payments will continue until 6 months after the pandemic ends or the funding runs out, whichever happens first.
“This is a program that will help those at risk of digital disconnection,” Acting FCC boss Jessica Rosenworcel said of the new program. “It will help those sitting in cars in parking lots just to catch a Wi-Fi signal to go online for work. It will help those lingering outside the library with a laptop just to get a wireless signal for remote learning. It will help those who worry about choosing between paying a broadband bill and paying rent or buying groceries.”
The FCC is also considering letting libraries and schools provide broadband access to users beyond their normal property boundaries during the pandemic, either via mobile hotspots given to students for use at home, or via the use of Wi-Fi-capable mobile bookmobiles or busses outfitted to dole out additional wireless access on demand.
While such efforts deliver some much needed aid to Americans struggling to make ends meet during the pandemic, it’s a temporary fix for the primary reason for America’s unaffordable internet: the politically-powerful telecom giants that have monopolized U.S. broadband.
Roughly 83 million Americans have access to only one broadband provider, usually Comcast. This in turn has directly resulted in high prices, spotty coverage, and the kind of comically-terrible customer service the industry has long been known for.
Such monopolization has a particularly profound impact on marginalized communities.
Groups like the National Digital Inclusion Alliance have released several reports showing how broadband providers like AT&T routinely refuse to upgrade minority and low-income neighborhoods in cities like Detroit, Cleveland, and Dallas, a practice known as “redlining.”
The pandemic is shining a very bright spotlight on a problem the United States has historically refused to often acknowledge, much less address. Some US children have been forced to huddle in the dirt near fast food restaurants just to attend class, and an estimated 18.5 million households lack broadband specifically due to the high cost of service.
So while the FCC’s new program provides essential, welcome relief for struggling Americans, consumer groups say both Congress and the FCC have a lot more work to do in tackling the monopolization issues at the heart of US broadband dysfunction.