FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel – long an advocate for government action to make broadband services more affordable in order to lessen the digital divide in the U.S. – said this week that she welcomes current congressional action to boost funding for broadband benefits but also expressed some skepticism about the effectiveness of service rate discount cuts being contemplated by Congress.
Last year Congress authorized a $3.2 billion subsidy program – the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) program – that offers $50 service rate discounts per household, or $75 per household on Tribal lands, that consumers can use to lower their monthly broadband bills, at least temporarily.
“And at the moment, approximately 5.5 million households are now benefiting from the temporary program,” Rosenworcel said on Sept. 15 during Politico’s Tech Summit event. “And this demonstrates the demand for a broadband affordability program is real.”
The $1 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act – which is already been approved by the Senate and awaits House consideration later this month – would expand and rename the EBB program as the Affordable Connectivity Benefit Program. The bill sets aside $14.2 billion of the total $65 million of broadband-related funding to extend the program and make other changes including lowering the monthly discount to $30.
“The discount cut would make offering affordable broadband service to all Americans difficult,” Rosenworcel said. “But regardless, it is important to have some affordability program like this to help crack the digital divide. We’ll take whatever Congress can give us.”
Affordable and ubiquitous broadband access has been a long-standing issue in the U.S., and the pandemic exacerbated the problem as many families needed to rely on home internet service far more than they had in the past. The pandemic exposed how much of the country lacked adequate broadband service and how for some in the country, the problem is having access to broadband that they can afford.
The FCC is also examining various tools and policies to taking further actions to ensure everyone has affordable broadband access, including combating digital redlining. When internet providers invest more money in wealthier consumers or more profitable markets but offer less adequate service to low-income consumers, it effectively exacerbates existing inequalities between both groups.
“We want 100 percent of our households connected to high-speed broadband service, no matter who they are or where they live. When we pull ourselves out of this pandemic, that [service] is going to make civic life, communities, and our economy stronger,” Rosenworcel said. “[And] this is an opportunity for generational change. To make sure that we get the service to every [home] and find ways to make sure it’s affordable. And I think that’s how we get to one hundred percent.”