Operators line up for FCC broadband subsidy program

More than 300 fixed and mobile internet providers were approved to participate in the U.S. Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) program, marking a key step forward as the agency works to distribute billions in government subsidies to low-income consumers.

Big names in the mix included AT&T, Comcast and Windstream Communications, with the remainder of the FCC’s list of 319 providers dominated by smaller players including i-wireless, Pine Belt Cellular, Cable One and Mediacom.

Verizon, Charter Communications*, Lumen and T-Mobile US were all notably absent. However, Acting FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement “there are more to come. Every day we are approving additional interested providers.”

She added work is underway developing the systems necessary to enable consumers to sign-up to receive subsidies so “eligible households most at risk of digital disconnection can soon take advantage of this benefit.”

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The $3.2 billion EBB program will provide a monthly discount on broadband service to eligible consumers, directly reimbursing operators up to $50 per month per qualified household, or up to $75 per month if the household is on Tribal lands. It will also fund a one-time discount of up to $100 on a computer or tablet for eligible consumers.

Analyst Blair Levin with New Street Research told Fierce the program “will help people get and stay online. That, in turn, helps providers by increasing the addressable market and making payments from certain customers more stable and certain.”

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Levin added that while the necessity of the EBB program may subside with the pandemic, “the need to assure that all can afford broadband will not.”

Operators including AT&T and Verizon have pressed for updates to the FCC’s subsidy programs, with AT&T EVP of Federal Regulatory Relations Joan Marsh noting in a recent blog the EBB will “deliver a low-income household less than half of the support it would need to fund” access to broadband service offering speeds of 100 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload.

“As higher speed networks get deployed to rural America, the current availability challenge could easily become an affordability one,” she wrote.

Earlier this week, President Joe Biden unveiled a $2 trillion infrastructure package, which targets delivery of high-speed broadband to every citizen. However, his administration did not seem keen to boost subsidy levels.

In a press release announcing the plan, the White House stated while individual subsidies “may be needed in the short term,” Biden “believes continually providing subsidies to cover the cost of overpriced internet service is not the right long-term solution for consumers or taxpayers.”

*After this story published, Charter Communications contacted Fierce to note it posted a blog stating it plans to participate in the program.