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    How the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will Make Broadband More Affordable

    Featured in:

    Saturday, November 6, 2021

    Digital Beat

    The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act not only provides the means to make broadband service more available by funding deployment of broadband middle-mile and last-mile networks, it also aims to make the service provided more affordable so more people can subscribe and use it. The law allocates over $14 billion to a revised program at the Federal Communications Commission that will subsidize services for low-income households. It requires broadband service providers to reveal more service information, including pricing, to consumers as they compare plans. And it takes unprecedented action against digital redlining which has led to unequal broadband access due to income, race, and ethnicity.

    I. The Emergency Broadband Benefit Becomes the (Permanent) Affordable Connectivity Program

    The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act builds on the Federal Communications Commission’s Emergency Broadband Benefit Program—created by the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021—and puts the initiative on more permanent footing, renamed as the Affordable Connectivity Program. The new program moves away from being just a response to the COVID-19 pandemic and refocuses on long-term affordability issues. Like the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, the Affordable Connectivity Program will be administered by the FCC. There are tweaks to the existing program, however.

    Broadband providers will receive up to $30/month (the Emergency Broadband Benefit is currently $50/month) for providing service to low-income households. Broadband providers pass on that savings to low-income subscribers. If the provider offers and the consumer picks a plan that regularly costs $30/month or less, the consumer will receive that service for free. The service can be standalone broadband or a bundle of services including broadband, telephone, texting, and the rental fee on the equipment (like a modem) that makes the service possible.

    The FCC will also give a broadband provider up to $100 if a household purchases one of the provider’s connected devices (laptop, desktop, or tablet computer) for no less than $10 and no more than $50. A household can only buy one of these discounted devices and there is no discount on smartphones. A connected device must be Wi-Fi enabled and support video conferencing.

    Who can get the benefit

    The program is set up to help people with low incomes including participants in the FCC’s Lifeline program(1). To get the discount, the law says:

    • A household’s income must be at or below 200% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines (Emergency Broadband Benefit was set at 135%) for a household of that size;
    • At least one person in the household must receive benefits from one of the following federal assistance programs: Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Supplemental Security Income, Federal Public Housing Assistance, or Veterans and Survivors Pension Benefit;
    • At least one person in the household is in the free and reduced-price lunch program or the school breakfast program (including the Community Eligibility Provision);
    • At least one person in the household has received a Federal Pell Grant in the current award year; or
    • At least one person in the household can participate in their broadband provider’s existing low-income.
    • If a household is located on Tribal lands, it is eligible if at least one person in the household participates in Bureau of Indian Affairs general assistance, Tribally administered Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Head Start (only those households meeting its income qualifying standard), or the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations.

    Anyone who already participates in the FCC’s Lifeline program will not need to apply for the Affordable Connectivity Program or provide any new documents to prove they are eligible. They simply must opt-in to a plan provided by their current broadband company or request enrollment in the Affordable Connectivity Program.

    People who are not currently in Lifeline must apply for the Affordable Connectivity Program through the National Lifeline Verifier, which is currently required to enroll in the FCC’s Lifeline program.

    Providers may not require eligible consumers to submit a credit check in order to apply for service. If a consumer does not pay their portion of the cost of service for 90 days, a provider can end their service.

    Who can provide service

    Just about any broadband internet access service provider can offer Affordable Connectivity Program-supported services including telephone companies, cable operators, wireless carriers, community-owned networks, electric cooperatives, and municipal governments.

    The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act includes a new provision about services provided in what it calls “high-cost areas” which are defined as unserved areas in which the cost of building out broadband service is higher, as compared with the average cost of building out broadband service in unserved areas in the United States (as determined by the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, in consultation with the FCC), incorporating factors that include: remote location, lack of population density, unique topography, or a high rate of poverty in the area. In high-cost areas that are on Tribal lands, the FCC will allow reimbursements up to $75/month to broadband providers if providing service with just the $30/month subsidy created economic hardship for the provider.

    Consumer Choice and Protection

    The Emergency Broadband Benefit Program was set up to allow service providers to choose which service plans consumers could apply the discount to. Their plans (including rates and terms of service) had to be offered to the public by December 1, 2020 (before the law created the program). The new law deletes those provisions.

    In the Affordable Connectivity Program, providers must allow eligible consumers to apply their discount to any plan the provider offers to the public. 

    The FCC will establish a dedicated process for Affordable Connectivity Program consumers to file complaints about the compliance of participating providers with program rules, including with respect to the quality of service. And the FCC will require participating providers to supply information about the existence of the complaint process to subscribers. Congress tells the FCC to act expeditiously to investigate potential violations and enforce compliance (including through penalties) with program rules. The FCC will regularly report to the public about complaints.

    Moreover, the FCC will issue consumer protection rules for Affordable Connectivity Program subscribers. The rules are to protect consumers from inappropriate:

    • Upselling or downselling by a participating provider,
    • Requirements that a consumer opt in to an extended service contract as a condition of participating in the Affordable Connectivity Program,
    • Restrictions on the ability of a consumer to switch internet service offerings or otherwise apply support from the Affordable Connectivity Program to a different internet service offering with a participating provider,
    • Restrictions on the ability of a consumer to switch participating providers, other than a requirement that the customer return any customer premises equipment provided by a participating provider, and
    • Unjust and unreasonable acts or practices that undermine the purpose, intent, or integrity of the program.

    Within one year, the FCC will also adopt rules concerning the annual collection of pricing and subscription rate data from participating Affordable Connectivity Program broadband providers. The FCC will revise those rules within six months (or whenever it deems necessary) to verify data accuracy. The FCC will make this data available to the public.

    Raising Public Awareness of the Affordable Connectivity Program

    In order to raise broadband adoption, providers are to collaborate with state agencies, public interest groups, and non-profit organizations’ public awareness campaigns designed to highlight the value and benefits of broadband service and the existence of the Affordable Connectivity Program. All participating providers will alert consumers to the existence of the program whenever a customer subscribes to or renews a subscription to broadband service. 

    The FCC, as well, can conduct outreach efforts to encourage eligible households to enroll in the program. The FCC may facilitate consumer research, conduct focus groups, engage in paid media campaigns, provide grants to outreach partners, and provide an orderly transition for participating providers and consumers from the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program to the Affordable Connectivity Program.

    See Who can get the benefit above

    The law requires the FCC to work with other federal agencies to ensure that any participant in any of the federal assistance programs mentioned above is provided information about the Affordable Connectivity Program—including information about how to enroll.

    Federal Coordination

    Within two months, the Departments of Agriculture, Education, and Health and Human Services will enter into an agreement with the Universal Service Administration Company(2) to expeditiously share data through the National Lifeline Verifier for the purpose of, you guessed it, verifying consumer eligibility for the Affordable Connectivity Program. The actual sharing of data is to happen just one month later.  

    The Transition

    Congress foresees a transition from the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program to the Affordable Connectivity Program either when the money allocated to the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program in the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 runs out (as of Oct 18, 2021, over $2.5 billion remained) or December 31, 2021, whichever comes earlier. (We’ll go out on a limb and predict we see 2022 before the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program money runs out.)

    Emergency Broadband Benefit Program consumers will get an extra 60 days before receiving just the $30/month subsidy vs the $50/month subsidy. And consumers participating in the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program but who will not be eligible for the Affordable Connectivity Program (think people who experienced income loss during COVID) will also get 60 days before they lose the benefit. 

    II. Consumer Broadband Labels

    In April 2016, the FCC’s Consumer and Governmental Affairs, Wireline Competition, and Wireless Telecommunications Bureaus approved consumer broadband labels proposed by the commission’s own Consumer Advisory Committee. The committee had proposed the labels pursuant to the net neutrality rules (who guessed we were going to mention net neutrality today?) and, as required by the FCC, the labels were to operate as a safe harbor format for broadband providers once the net neutrality rules’ enhanced transparency requirements took effect. But the labels, like the FCC’s net neutrality rules, were later rescinded.

    In the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Congress gives the FCC one year to issue new broadband label rules à la the April 2016 proposal. Congress offers the FCC further guidance, however, requiring the labels to include information on introductory vs long-term rates paid by consumers. Congress then instructs the FCC to use the information displayed on the new broadband labels for the Affordable Connectivity Program pricing reporting noted above.

    Congress also instructs the FCC to conduct a series of public hearings to access how consumers evaluate broadband plans and whether broadband disclosures to consumers are available, effective, and sufficient.

    III. Speed Report

    The new law requires the Government Accountability Office to publish an evaluation of the FCC’s process for establishing, reviewing, and updating the upload and download speed thresholds for broadband internet access service. The report is to include:

    • How the FCC reviews and updates broadband internet access speed thresholds,
    • Whether the FCC should consider future broadband speed needs (say five or ten years out) when establishing broadband internet access service speed thresholds, and
    • Whether the FCC should consider the impacts of its speed thresholds on the proliferation of internet-based business, working remotely, and running a business from the home, video teleconferencing, distance learning, in-house web hosting, and cloud data storage.

    The Government Accountability Office is to deliver the report to Congress within a year.

    IV. Addressing Digital Redlining

    With passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, it is now the policy of the United States that:

    1. subscribers should benefit from equal access to broadband internet access service within the service area of a provider of such service;
    2. ‘‘equal access’’ means the equal opportunity to subscribe to an offered service that provides comparable speeds, capacities, latency, and other quality of service metrics in a given area, for comparable terms and conditions; and
    3. the FCC should take steps to ensure that all people of the United States benefit from equal access to broadband internet access service.

    With that guidance, the FCC has two years to issue rules to facilitate equal access to broadband internet access service, including: preventing digital discrimination of access based on income level, race, ethnicity, color, religion, or national origin; and identifying necessary steps for the FCC to take to eliminate such discrimination.

    In addition, the FCC and the U.S. Attorney General will ensure that Federal policies promote equal access to robust broadband internet access service by prohibiting deployment discrimination based on: 

    • the income level of an area,
    • the predominant race or ethnicity composition of an area, or
    • other factors the FCC determines to be relevant based on the findings of its rulemaking.

    The FCC will develop model policies and best practices that can be adopted by states and localities to ensure that broadband internet access service providers do not engage in digital discrimination. 

    Finally, the FCC will revise its public complaint process to accept complaints from consumers or other members of the public that relate to digital discrimination.

    Notes:

    1. Similar to the new program, Lifeline lowers the monthly costs of phone and internet services for low-income people, but only by $9.25/month. Currently, most Lifeline participants use the discount on monthly wireless services including cellphone service that includes a data plan. Lifeline subscribers can keep their current benefits and also add a plan, wired or wireless, that is offered through the Affordable Connectivity Program.
    2. The Universal Service Administration Company (known in friendly circles as USAC) is the independent not-for-profit that administers the Universal Service Fund program, including Lifeline, under the direction of the FCC. 

    The Infrastructure Bill is About More than Money

    The Largest U.S. Investment in Broadband Deployment Ever

    The Largest U.S. Investment in Broadband Adoption Ever

    Investing in Middle Mile Infrastructure

    How the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will Make Broadband More Affordable

    Addressing the Workforce Needs of the Telecommunications Industry

    Enhancing the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Grant Program

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