FCC broadband discount program: More than 5M US households enrolled

More than 5 million U.S. households have enrolled in the country’s Emergency Broadband Benefit Program since its inception in May 2021, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

"Enrolling five million households into the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program in a little over three months is no small feat," FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in a news release.

According to the FCC, more than 1,000 broadband providers agreed to take part in the program which delivers access to low-income households with a temporary, monthly discount. 

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Discounts can range up to $50 a month on service and equipment rental, $75 a month for people living on qualifying tribal lands or a one-time payment of up to $100 for a laptop, tablet, or desktop computer (with a co-payment of more than $10 but less than $50). 

The $3.2 billion program is part of the $900 billion December pandemic-relief package. The government is increasing spending on broadband as the pandemic made plain that millions of Americans did not have access to, and could not afford, broadband at a time when jobs, school and health care were moving online.

It’s unclear how long the money will last, but it’s expected to be several months.

As schools, workplaces and public services continue to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, online connections are keeping Americans in touch with vital institutions and each other. But that’s not much of an option when fast internet service is hard to come by.

The FCC says about 14 million Americans don’t have access to broadband at the speeds necessary to work and study online — 25 megabits per second downloads and 3 mbps uploads — but acknowledges that its maps are faulty. Outside groups have made higher estimates.

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Many more simply can’t afford broadband. U.S. broadband costs more than in many comparable countries — an average of $58 a month compared to $46.55 across 29 nations, according to a 2018 Federal Communications Commission report.

Federal lawmakers are working in Washington to expand broadband access. 

Earlier this month, the Senate passed a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure plan that includes a $65 billion investment in broadband that the White House says will "deliver reliable, affordable, high-speed internet to every household." Last week, the House passed its version— a larger $3.5 trillion plan. 

The Senate bill would provide about $14 billion toward a $30 monthly benefit that helps low-income people pay for internet, extending a pandemic-era emergency program.

"What makes this historic is the focus on affordability," said Jenna Leventoff of Public Knowledge, which advocates for more funding for broadband. The bill, should it become law, is "going to help a lot of people that were otherwise unable to connect."

"This bill will not increase choice and lower prices for everyone. But that’s not the right measure," Matt Wood, a broadband policy expert at the consumer advocacy group Free Press, said. "It will make real, high-speed internet far more affordable for millions of people who today cannot afford it, and it will make faster networks available to millions more. That’s a big deal."

The Associated Press contributed to this report. This story was reported from Los Angeles.