On February 25, 2021, the FCC approved a Report and Order setting rules for the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) Program to disburse $3.2 billion to service providers that furnish discounted broadband service and devices to low-income and Tribal area households. Congress established this program last year in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 to make broadband services and connected devices more affordable during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The FCC's goal is for the program to be in place by no later than the end of April 2021. The program will end six months after the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services determines that the COVID-19 pandemic emergency is terminated.
What are the subsidies?
The EBB program will subsidize:
- Up to a $50 per month discount for broadband services to low-income households;
- Up to a $75 per month discount for broadband services for households on Tribal lands; and
- Up to a $100 one-time discount for a laptop, desktop computer, or tablet purchased through a participating broadband service provider.
- The monthly discounts may also be applied to monthly charges for equipment associated with the service, such as modems, routers, hotspot devices, and antennas.
What households are eligible?
- A household is eligible to receive discounted broadband service if at least one member:
- Qualifies for the FCC's Lifeline program;
- Receives benefits under the free and reduced-price school lunch program or the school breakfast program, or qualified in the 2019-2020 school year;
- Experienced a substantial loss of income since February 29, 2020, and the household had a total income in 2020 below $99,000 for single filers and below $198,000 for joint filers;
- Received a Federal Pell Grant in the current award year; or
- Meets the eligibility criteria for a participating broadband service provider's existing low-income or COVID-19 program.
- A Tribal area household is eligible if it meets one or more of the low-income eligibility criteria above and it is located in any federally recognized Indian tribe's reservation, pueblo, or colony.
How do broadband service providers qualify to receive reimbursements under the EBB program?
- A broadband provider may elect to participate in the program if:
- It provided broadband service on December 1, 2020.
- The provider has been designated as an “eligible telecommunications carrier” (ETC) in a state or territory in which it will offer EBB discounted service.
- For non-ETCs, the FCC's Wireline Competition Bureau (Bureau) will automatically qualify a broadband provider that:
- offered discounted subscriber rates no later than April 1, 2020 based on low-income, loss of income, or participation in federal, state, or local assistance programs; or
- made commitments no later than April 1, 2020 to (i) keep subscribers connected during the pandemic or (ii) offer widely available bill forbearance or forgiveness programs.
- had a process in place as of April 1, 2020 by which it can verify eligible households in order to prevent fraud, waste, and abuse in the program.
- Non-ETCs that are not eligible for automatic qualification may seek expedited approval from the Bureau by submitting:
- A list of states they plan to offer EBB discounted service;
- A statement of the jurisdictions where they (i) are an ETC and (ii) where they are not an ETC but seek to qualify under the EBB program; and
- A statement of their program to prevent waste, fraud, and abuse.
- All broadband providers qualifying under the EBB program must file an election with Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC) certifying several aspects of its participation in the program, such as the areas where it intends to offer EBB discounts, a description of the services it will be offering (including pricing and service tiers), and whether it plans to offer connected devices under the EBB program.
- On March 4, 2021, the Bureau released a Public Notice establishing the following milestone dates:
- March 8, 2021 - The Bureau's portal opens for filing requests for EBB program qualification by non-ETC providers and for approval of alternative verification processes.
- March 11, 2021 - the USAC inbox opens for providers to file EBB program election notices.
- March 22, 2021 – the deadline for filing requests for EBB program qualification by non-ETC providers and for approval of alternative verification processes.
What regulatory obligations apply to service providers participating in the EBB program?
- The provider must offer at least one EBB discounted service in each area it has elected to qualify under the program.
- The provider must not deny an eligible household the ability to participate in the program based on any past or present arrearages, may not require the household to pay an early termination fee if it later terminates the service, and may not impose a mandatory waiting period for a household that previously received service.
- The provider must publicize the availability of the EBB Program in a manner that is reasonably designed to reach those households likely to qualify for the program discounts.
- The provider must comply with several subscriber notice requirements, including:
- Collecting and retaining documentation demonstrating that, prior to enrolling a subscriber, it clearly disclosed that (i) EBB is a temporary government program reducing the customer's monthly broadband service bill, (ii) the household will be subject to the provider's undiscounted rates and general terms and conditions at the end of the program, (iii) the household may obtain EBB-discounted service from another participating provider and transfer their EBB benefit to that provider.
- Retaining documentation that, having received such disclosures, the household provided affirmative consent to apply the EBB discount to the service.
- The provider must verify the eligibility of a household by using either the FCC's existing verification systems or through an alternative verification process that is approved by the Bureau.
- The provider must submit to the FCC's National Lifeline Accountability Database (NLAD) the name address, and other information of each new or existing subscriber that will receive EBB benefits. The provider must also query the NLAD to ensure that the household is not already receiving an EBB benefit, and must update that information if the service is terminated or the subscriber's information has changed.
- The provider must use certain USAC databases and administrative processes.
The information provided above is not legal advice, and should not be relied on as such. The content above is for informational purposes only, and is meant as a starting point on your search for answers to your legal questions.