Senate Dems Introduce Bill to Expand Emergency Broadband Benefit Access

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A group of Senate Democrats wants to add $6 billion more to the FCC’s Emergency Broadband Program. The cash infusion would more than triple federal connectivity subsidies for low-income families hard hit by the pandemic.

Sen. Ron Wyden, (OR), with 15 additional Democrats, introduced new legislation, which was also included in Democrats’ comprehensive legislation to expand affordable internet access. The EBB program provides a $50 per month benefit to workers who have been laid off or furloughed during the pandemic and $75 per month on tribal lands, along with a range of other assistance to ensure families can access critical online services.  

Congress authorized the EBB with a $3.2 billion appropriation as part of a larger COVID-19 rescue package in late December, but advocates subsequently raised concerns that the program wouldn’t stretch far enough. Language in Wyden’s bill would also make it easier for states to include residents that already qualify for low-income benefits, providing funds to link databases like that of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program with the FCC’s Lifeline eligibility database.

“Democrats made a massive down-payment on broadband in the last relief package,” Wyden said. “This bill will make sure that the families who need broadband the most don’t lose access just as our country can see the end of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The bill is co-sponsored by his Democratic Senate colleagues Sens. Jeff Merkley, (OR); Amy Klobuchar, (MN); Ed Markey, (MA); Richard Durbin, (IL); Raphael Warnock, (GA); Cory Booker, (NJ); Kirsten Gillibrand, (NY); Robert Menendez, (NJ); Tammy Baldwin, (WI); Chris Van Hollen, (MD); Tammy Duckworth, (IL); Dianne Feinstein, (CA); Richard Blumenthal, (CT); and Patty Murray, (WA) and Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, (VT).

As the FCC works to deploy the EBB program, lawmakers are calling on internet service providers to ensure consumers know about the upcoming discounts. House Commerce Committee leaders sent letters to nine ISPs and their respective trade associations last week that told the companies, “it is critical that eligible customers know about the benefit, which providers are participating in the program, and how they can access the benefit.”   

Chairman Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ), Ranking Member Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Mike Doyle (D-PA), and Communications and Technology Subcommittee Ranking Member Bob Latta (R-OH) sent the letters. They wrote to: Altice, AT&T, CenturyLink/Lumen, Charter, Comcast, Cox, Frontier, T-Mobile, and Verizon. They also wrote to these trade groups: United States Telecom Association; The Rural Broadband Association, The Internet & Television Association, The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, Wireless Internet Service Providers Association, CTIA, Competitive Carriers Association, America’s Communications Association and INCOMPAS.

So far, nearly 400 companies have applied to participate in the program, Acting FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said last week, as reported by Politico.

Industry organizations applauded the introduction. CTIA SVP Government Affairs Kelly Cole called the program “essential to enabling mobile wireless services to continue keeping low-income Americans connected during this challenging time.”

“At a time when internet access is more important than ever before, more funding is needed to keep families connected as they and their communities recover from the economic effects of the pandemic,” said Shirley Bloomfield, CEO, NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association. “The bill also makes improvements to the verifying process that make it easier for small providers to participate in the program, which benefits the rural communities they serve.”

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