Emergency Broadband Benefit Program – One Time or The Foundation for Something More Permanent?

As part of its $900B, December 2020 stimulus package, Congress allocated $3.2 Billion for the FCC to administer an Emergency Broadband Benefit Fund [Note: the original title has been updated to Emergency Broadband Benefit Program instead of Emergency Broadband Connectivity Fund] to help connect those who are struggling financially. Some of the things that make this temporary program unique are

  • In addition to funding for service (up to $50/month or $75/month on Tribal lands), funds can be used to reimburse up to one device per household (desktop, laptop, or tablet up to $100).
  • It is available to both ETCs (Eligible Telecommunications Carriers) and non-ETCs to offer to their prospects and existing subscribers.
  • Instead of having a set time limit, the length of this program will go for six months or until the fund is depleted.

The FCC worked with amazing speed to come up with a detailed document, which calls for initial and reply comments due on January 25th and February 16th, respectively. The experience of the FCC staffers is shown in the document’s 80+ questions asking how to allocate and account for the funds.

120+ Interesting Responses – Is This the Foundation for Something Permanent?

Ken Pyle wears the Zeiss VR One at the 2015 Augmented World Expo.

What counts as a device? Should routers qualify? VR glasses? Large smartphones?

And the 120+ responses from a diverse set of groups raise many more questions and bring nuance to the discussion. For instance, The American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) (PDF) believes that the definition of devices should be broad to account for assistive devices, such as those with built-in voice assistants. Others, like Monkeybrains (PDF), want the FCC to include DSL termination equipment and wireless routers as eligible equipment (if voice-assist technology is in the router, then it would meet the AAPD’s device definition).

Others, look at the bigger picture, including the United Spinal Association (PDF), which makes the case for broadband as a substitute for today’s limited transportation system and as a complement to the autonomous mobility networks of tomorrow. An underlying theme in many of the comments is this program is a testing ground of sorts for something that is much different than today’s approach to lifeline broadband and telephony service.

For example, the ITIF explicitly states that the FCC should design the program so that it can transition to something permanent:

Finally, the Commission should design this program so that it could potentially be made a permanent tool to counter economic downturns, should Congress see fit to authorize and fund it.

Verizon and AT&T echo similar messages in recent blog posts arguing for customer-centric broadband support, funded by Congress, instead of user fees.

Big Challenges/Tight Timeline

The challenges for the FCC in implementing this program are many and include:

  • A fast timeline to get it launched – “emergency” is part of the title of the act.
  • The need to enlist broadband operators in the program – many of whom have never worked with the FCC or USAC (the program administrator) before and may view the rewards as not being worth the risks.
  • Marketing a new program to consumers (could some of the $64M for administrative costs be used for marketing? WordSouth has a 5-point plan for marketing the program.)
  • Will the recent “Buy-American Executive Order” require waivers to subsidize devices that are typically manufactured off-shore?
  • Ramping down a program that could end at any time without upsetting consumers or inadvertently giving the broadband operators a black eye.¹

That challenge falls on the shoulders of the acting FCC Chair, Jessica Rosenworcel. Rosenworcel has wisely convened a roundtable on February 12th to discuss the challenges and opportunities of the program.

With that as background, the above interview with Brian Hurley, ACA Connects’ Vice President Regulatory Affairs, brings additional insight to this complex and fast-moving topic. Hurley crafted ACA Connects’ response to the FCC’s request for comments. As the former Special Counsel for the Competition Policy Division, at the FCC’s Wireline Competition Bureau, he has a unique perspective on the process and this still developing program.

Interview Highlights:

  • 01:25 – ACA Connects sees the Emergency Broadband Connectivity Fund as a continuation of the Connect America Program and the efforts its members have been doing to connect the less fortunate.
  • 03:42 This is a customer-centric program. It is intended to meet immediate needs while maximizing the benefit with the constraints of a very short time-frame.
  • 05:13 – Hurley explains that it is important that Congress made the program open to both ETC (Eligible Telecommunications Carrier) and non-ETC carriers. Simply, ETCs don’t necessarily cover all the areas served with broadband and, in some cases, the non-ETC offering may be superior. The challenge is that non-ETC providers need to be approved by the FCC. With that said, ACA Connects and others believe there needs to be a common starting point for when the program begins.
  • 09:19 – Without the non-ETCs, this program may leave behind some people who need broadband, as they would have no other choice. Hurley indicates that ACA Connects views this program as one that centers on consumer choice, which he says is how Congress viewed it when they wrote the law.
  • 10:25 Hurley points out that USAC will be administering the program and that ACA Connects has requested that USAC make the appropriate databases available to non-ETC members so they can begin familiarizing themselves with the respective interfaces. The backend is a particular challenge since recordkeeping and reporting details need determining. For instance, one can imagine having a standard API that feeds the USAC with certain minimum information, such as the number of subscribers taking a plan, how much subsidy each is receiving for both service and, potentially, associated device. Ideally, this data would be available in real-time so that USAC could have some sort of flow-through back to the service provider that would include valuable information such as “Days left until funds are exhausted.”
  • 12:36 – What about potential liability from customer fraud? Hurley explains that USAC’s Lifeline National Verifier database shields the operator. But, he points out the importance of USAC educating those who haven’t used the database, so they will be ready for the launch date.
  • 13:58 – Congress also included a safe harbor provision. Further, the Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council, and the National Urban League cite the low amount of improper payments using the Lifeline qualifications (2.93%) in 2016 as justifications of using that approach.
  • 14:38 – Schools could continue to be important partners to operators in bringing broadband to students within this program. ACA Connects believes this will require flexibility in implementation and would increase participation by operators who otherwise might find the process daunting.
  • 16:56 – Ken raises the idea of a program whereby a school district would look at broadband as an extension of the school. The operator would provide the infrastructure at a bulk rate and, perhaps, what the school would provide would be the walled garden equivalent of what the students would see if they were in school.
  • 18:29 – Hurley reinforces that this program is technology-neutral. He also says that the FCC is going to need to make a concerted effort to get the small operators to participate in the program. This will be necessary to reach all those in need.
  • 19:39 – The FCC should figure how to ensure that citizens know which providers are authentic providers to prevent scams. Pointing to the comments, Hurley says there are many community groups and non-profits who will help promote the availability.
  • 21:23 – The money can be used not only for the service but for devices as well. One question is should a big smartphone count as a device, as T-Mobile and TechFreedom suggest?
  • 23:02 – If this program morphs into something permanent, will it mean the end of voluntary programs, like Comcast’s Internet Essentials?
  • 23:25 – The end of this program will last either 6 months after its start or when it runs out of money. This presents challenges and requires setting expectations with customers and clearly communicating those expectations. ACA Connects suggests the FCC regularly, say every two weeks, provides updates on how much money is being spent on the program. He points out the valid concerns of how to prevent a customer shock at the end of the program.
  • 26:12 – Hurley discusses the importance of a model compliance plan both for expediting the program, as well as making it available to both non-ETC and ETC operators and the maximum number of subscribers.
  • 29:19 – Definitions aren’t necessarily clear-cut. For instance, some of the commenters pointed out that often there are multiple households living in the same house.² Sometimes, there may not even be a house associated with a household.³
  • 30:20 – There is an upcoming FCC Roundtable on February 12th (PDF) to discuss the program. Comments are due February 16th with a final rulemaking expected by the end of February.
  • 32:15 – Is this the first step towards a different way of funding broadband for those in need? Hurley suggests that there will be lots of eyes on this program and that’s why transparency is going to be so important.
  • 35:08 – Ken advocates the “MAC Tax” contribution approach to USF he has been suggesting that policymakers look at since August 2004.

Footnotes

¹ TechFreedom succinctly describes potential negative repercussions for ISPs if the program ends suddenly, “Dumping all of the negative feelings when the money runs out on providers who will have to cut off service will only serve to dissuade many from participating in the first place.” (page 9)

² For instance, The American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) believes that subsidization of multiple devices per household should be allowed per home since there are often roommates who are disabled. They also suggest that the definition of devices should be broad to account for assistive devices.

³ The Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council, and the National Urban League write, “Additionally, undocumented families should be eligible to receive funding.” … (page 7) the Commission also should explore how to provide services for transient and homeless populations, such as providing wireless broadband (e.g. hotspots).”