Stimulus bill offers emergency broadband benefit

Legislation | December 23, 2020 | by Juliana Bilowich

COVID-19 stimulus bill includes internet services rebate, broadband installation investment.

Included in the latest COVID-19 relief and FY21 appropriations bills package is an investment to boost internet access for households with low incomes, as well as broadband installation in hard to reach areas. Called an “emergency broadband benefit,” the bill outlines a monthly discount on internet services for qualifying households during the duration of the public health emergency.

To help ease the country’s digital divide, the bill includes a $3 billion program to offer rebates on monthly internet services costs. Determined by income and other factors, qualifying households can receive up to $50 per month toward the cost of broadband, or up to $75 per month if they live in a tribal area.

With the pandemic keeping many households locked down, older adults across the country rely on internet to safely access telehealth services and community resources, and to safely stay in touch with friends and family. However, according to recent survey data by Johns Hopkins University, service coordinators in HUD Section 202 properties estimate that only 36% of residents have access to technology through their community.

Those who have lost jobs as a result of the pandemic or are enrolled in other safety net programs may qualify for the new rebate, which is described in the stimulus bill as rolling out in February. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will be in charge of implementing the program; at least 33 million households are believed to be eligible for the benefit, similar to existing benefits offered by the FCC.

The bill also authorizes funds to increase broadband infrastructure in rural and tribal areas, increase connectivity for minority group communities, map areas lacking internet connectivity, and advance telehealth services.