Broadband adoption and the greater use of broadband services to enhance quality of life and the economy are a top priority for the Biden Administration. While funding the construction of broadband networks is essential to driving access to broadband services, Democrats will likely focus on policies that promote adoption of broadband services by low-income families, veterans, and others on the far side of the “digital divide.” Similarly, connecting those communities via broadband to a range of online services – such as adult distance learning, access to school networks for K-12 students, online employment opportunities, and telehealth – is a key component of the Administration's telecom policy goals.
- Affordable Broadband. The price of home broadband services may be prohibitive for disadvantaged members of communities, which means they lack access to critical information, online education, and full participation in society. The $3.2 billion Emergency Broadband Benefit Program (discussed in our prior blog post) is intended to address this issue, in part, with discounts on the monthly charge for home broadband services. On February 26, 2021, the FCC adopted rules to implement the program within 60 days. We expect that the Biden Administration will continue to pursue the affordable broadband policy objectives in future programs.
- E-Rate. For many years, the FCC's E-Rate program has provided funding for telecommunications and broadband services and equipment for students on campus to connect with school networks and for library patrons to connect with library networks. Except in limited circumstances, however, E-Rate regulations prevent funding for broadband connectivity when students are at home or off-campus, or when patrons are not on library premises. The most glaring consequence of these regulatory limits is the inability of K-12 students from low-income families to access broadband services from home or off-campus to connect with school networks (aka the “homework gap”). This issue has been exacerbated by school campus closures and the transition to virtual K-12 schooling during the COVID-19 pandemic. On February 1, the FCC released a Public Notice seeking comments on proposals to direct E-Rate funding for broadband services and equipment of schools and libraries that connect students off-campus and at home during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Lifeline. The FCC's Lifeline program supports discounted mobile and fixed broadband services for low-income individuals but, according to Democrats, the current regulations are overly restrictive and the program is underfunded. Democrats will likely revamp and expand the Lifeline program to ensure that broadband services are affordable for a greater number of people.
- Broadband Mapping. Democrats have long argued for a more thorough and accurate collection of data to determine the availability of broadband service in unserved and underserved areas. Their concern is that the FCC's current broadband data collection and mapping methodology may seriously underestimate the lack of access to broadband in many communities. The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 allocated $65 million for the FCC to update its data collection and maps of broadband availability. On January 19, the FCC adopted a Third Report and Order improving its data collection and data verification processes to ensure a more accurate and granular picture of broadband availability in communities throughout the country.