Americans hit by pandemic eligible for FCC's $50 broadband subsidy

The FCC and the Department of Education want to make sure that families in need with K-12 and college students apply.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
8 min read
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Millions of Americans who can't afford broadband could get up to $50 a month to help pay their bill thanks to a new federal subsidy program.

Annette Riedl/picture alliance via Getty Images

American families financially hit by the coronavirus pandemic can now get help paying their broadband bills through a new federal subsidy program. The Emergency Broadband Benefit, administered through the Federal Communications Commission, gives eligible households a $50-a-month subsidy that can be used to pay for broadband service, as well as a one-time $100 payment toward a device to connect to the internet. 

The FCC said that starting Wednesday qualifying households would be able to apply for the benefit. The agency also announced that it's partnering with the US Department of Education to get the word out to households that have students unable to pursue their education because they lack broadband or a device, like a computer, that would let them access online learning. 

The campaign is designed to inform millions of families with children participating in the free or reduced-price lunch or school breakfast program, and 6.5 million Pell Grant recipients, that they are now eligible for the $50 broadband discount. Eligible households living on tribal lands can get a subsidy of up to $75 per month.

Locating local internet providers

The subsidies are part of the COVID-19 relief package Congress passed in December. More than 825 broadband providers, including the nation's largest ones, such as AT&T, Comcast and Verizon, have committed to participating in this program, said acting FCC chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel.

Rosenworcel said it's particularly important for families with children in school to have access to this program, because they have been among those most harmed by a lack of access during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Locating local internet providers

"Even before this virus, millions of students who lacked the home broadband connection they need to complete online assignments for their teachers have fallen into the homework gap, which is what I called the cruelest part of our nation's digital divide," Rosenworcel said on a conference call with reporters. "With so many classes moving online we went from kids and students who couldn't do basic homework assignments, to having kids and students who couldn't do schoolwork at all. So that homework gap has become a full-fledged education gap."

Rosenworcel said that as many as 16 million to 17 million students lack access to adequate broadband or a device to connect to the internet. She noted that these students are also disproportionately Black, Latino and American Indian or Alaska Native and who have already been left behind when it comes to having their educational needs met. 

"These inequities have only been exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic," she said. "These are the kids who find themselves sitting in school parking lots, late in the evening, doing classwork on borrowed laptops, because it's the only place that they can get a signal to go online."

Closing the digital divide is a key aspect of President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion infrastructure plan. He has proposed the government spend $100 billion to build new infrastructure and to address affordability concerns. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said this is especially important for American students. 

"It's critically important that as we think about recovering and building back better, we make sure we address the digital divide that has prevented access for so many of our students," he said during the conference call Wednesday.  

The Emergency Broadband Benefit program is temporary and is meant to address broadband affordability during the pandemic. But some proponents of the program have pushed for a more permanent subsidy to help make broadband more affordable to low income families and individuals. 

Rosenworcel said she wouldn't speculate on whether the program would be extended or whether it might become permanent. She said that would be up to Congress to decide. But she said the FCC and the Department of Education plan to study the program and how it works. 

"It's my hope that we can return to Congress, and offer some ideas about what a successor might look like," she said.

The digital divide

The pandemic has shed a light on the inequities between people with and without access to high-speed internet. For millions of Americans, the digital divide exists because they live in a rural part of the country where broadband infrastructure simply isn't available. For other families in rural and suburban markets, broadband service may be available but unaffordable. During the pandemic, students without internet service haven't been able to attend school. And adults who can't go into offices have been unable to work remotely. 

"We now know that internet access is essential for modern life," Rosenworcel said. "And this pandemic has made it abundantly clear that broadband, no longer nice to have, [is a] need-to-have for everyone." 

Policy makers have tried for years to resolve the digital divide. Despite billions of dollars being spent each year to subsidize the cost of building new infrastructure and to offset the cost of service for poor Americans, the problem persists. It hasn't helped that the FCC for years has been addressing these problems using maps that don't accurately reflect where broadband service exists and where it doesn't. 

Congress and the FCC agree that the broadband mapping issue needs to be fixed. At the FCC's February meeting, Rosenworcel launched a task force to fulfill Congress' mandate to improve the FCC's broadband maps.

The FCC has moved quickly to get the program up and running. The agency voted unanimously in February to approve the plan to administer the program. Earlier this month, it announced that more than 300 fixed and mobile internet providers were approved to participate in the EBB program. Large providers, such as AT&T, Comcast and Windstream Communications, were part of the initial group approved for the program. 

What the carriers are doing

Broadband providers such as AT&T, Comcast and Verizon have each said they'd participate in the EBB program to offer their customers the subsidy.

Verizon said the program is available to new and existing Fios, 5G Home Internet, LTE Home Internet, Mobile Mix & Match Unlimited or Mobile Hotspot customers. Verizon said customers with Fios Forward, a program that helps eligible households save $20 per month for high-speed fiber home internet service, will also be able to get the subsidy.

If customers already qualify for the FCC's Lifeline subsidy program or if they qualify for other federal programs such as the National School Lunch Program, Pell Grant college funding program, or they've lost a job or had significant income loss during the pandemic, they could qualify for the program. To confirm eligibility for the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program discount, visit getemergencybroadband.org

AT&T also announced that customers of its AT&T and Cricket Wireless services could receive the temporary subsidy, which could greatly reduce the cost of their internet service. For example, qualifying new and existing customers on an AT&T Internet plan with speeds up to 300Mbps would pay $5 a month or less, the company said in a press release. 

"The pandemic proved that all Americans need reliable broadband connections for everything from applying for jobs, to working at home, to participating in school," AT&T Communications CEO Jeff McElfresh said in a statement. "We are eager to step up and work hand-in-hand with the federal government to provide relief to customers while helping to bridge the Digital Divide."

AT&T said that the EBB benefits can be applied to "select wireline and wireless broadband service plans" for both new and existing customers.  Earlier this month, the company said its 1gigabit per second fiber service known as "Internet 1000," along with its wireless postpaid unlimited plans would be eligible for the subsidy. But the company said late Wednesday after the program launched that those plans would no longer be eligible. Select AT&T Prepaid and Cricket plans will also be eligible for the program, but AT&T didn't specify which plans. Details will be available soon at att.com/EBB, the company said. 

Broadband providers address digital divide 

AT&T, Comcast and Verizon have also each said they're committed to helping close the digital divide. AT&T has touted its Access from AT&T program that offers qualifying households wireline internet service at discounted rates. The company recently announced it'll invest $2 billion over the next three years through low-cost broadband service offerings and community investment to help close the digital divide.

Verizon says it plans to invest $3 billion over the next five years in what it calls "responsible business investment," which includes more affordable broadband offerings. 

"Responsible business isn't philanthropy, it must be part of the core strategy," Hans Vestberg, chairman and CEO of Verizon, said in a statement. "We are committed to building sustainable solutions for our key stakeholders and driving access to mobility, broadband and cloud services for all." 

Verizon has also announced a plan to help bring digital skills training to rural communities. The company is partnering with the National 4-H Council to offer digital skills training to adults in rural communities, with a specific focus on people of color. Working with nine historically Black colleges and universities, all land-grant institutions, the program will credential teens in the communities to provide training that's expected to empower 15,000 adults with basic digital skills needed for jobs, education, banking and health care by the end of the year. This initiative is a part of Verizon's efforts to support digital inclusion in rural communities. 

In March, Comcast celebrated the 10th anniversary of its Internet Essentials program, which offers low-income families broadband service for $10 a month. Since launching in 2011, the program has connected more than 10 million people to the internet. The company plans to invest $1 billion over the next decade to continue to close the digital divide. Since the coronavirus pandemic hit last year, Comcast has increased the speeds of its Internet Essentials offering to 50 Mbps downloads, and it's opened up more than 1.5 million free public Wi-Fi hotspots. Additionally, it's partnered with local community organizations, such as community centers, to establish Wi-Fi connected "Lift Zones" across the country, which provide free internet access for school age children to access to online school or other community members who may need the internet but are unable to get it at home.  

Political pressure

All of this comes as the Biden administration is pushing its more than $2 trillion infrastructure plan, which includes $100 billion in funding to help bridge the digital divide. In addition to getting infrastructure to areas of the country that are unserved or underserved, the Biden plan also calls for more digital equity. The president has specifically said the federal government won't provide subsidies for broadband service forever and that more affordable offerings need to be made available for Americans who don't have enough to pay for the services. 

Though the plan has yet to be fleshed out and defined, broadband providers are already pushing back on key aspects, such as prioritizing federal spending on government-run or nonprofit networks. The cable industry, in particular, opposes federal support for companies deploying "future-proof" infrastructure, which many in the industry believe is a veiled reference to favoring companies building fiber infrastructure. And all the big providers oppose any hint of potential price regulation on broadband.

Biden announced in April that he's put Vice President Kamala Harris in charge of the digital divide effort, a sign that the White House sees broadband as a top priority.