FCC's Expanded COVID-19 Telehealth Program and Broadband Plans

Members | February 24, 2021 | by Andrea Price-Carter

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) monthly Virtual Commission Meeting was held on February 17, 2021.

The FCC provided a presentation on the expansion of the COVID-19 Telehealth Program, the creation of the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, and work the agency is doing to improve its broadband maps. All of the initiatives received additional funding allocated through the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, signed into law on December 27, 2020.

The following are highlights on the initiatives that were discussed during the Commission Meeting. You can also view the meeting on FCC’s web page at www.fcc.gov/live and on the FCC’s YouTube channel.

Presentation on COVID-19 Telehealth Program

The Commission heard a presentation about the next steps for the agency’s COVID-19 Telehealth Program. The CARES Act, signed into law on March 27, 2020, allocated $200 million to the FCC to establish the COVID-19 Telehealth Program.

The FCC approved 539 applications and awarded the full $200 million in funding to help health care providers deliver connected care services to patients at their homes or mobile locations in response to the pandemic. The Program provided immediate support to eligible health care providers responding to the pandemic by fully funding their telecommunications services, information services, and devices necessary to provide critical connected care services. The Commission stopped accepting applications for the initial round of COVID-19 Telehealth Program funding on June 25, 2020. More information about the initial round of the COVID-19 Telehealth Program is available at: https://www.fcc.gov/covid-19-telehealth-program.

The Consolidated Appropriations Act provided an additional $249.95 million in funding for the COVID-19 Telehealth Program to support the FCC’s second round of funding to expand connected care throughout the country and help more patients receive health care safely. The Act also directed the FCC to issue a public notice establishing a comment period during which the FCC would seek comment on: (1) the metrics used to evaluate applications for this second tranche of funding; and (2) how to treat applications filed during the initial round of funding. The Commission will provide additional information about the second round of funding after these issues and questions have been resolved.

Presentation on the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program

The Commission heard a presentation on the creation of an Emergency Broadband Benefit Program (EBBP). Congress charged the FCC with developing a new $3.2 billion program to help Americans receive subsidies to pay for internet and broadband service during the pandemic.

The EBBP benefit will provide a discount of up to $50 per month on broadband service and associated equipment provided to low-income households. On Tribal lands, the discount increases to up to $75 per month. EBPP will support a one-time discount of up to $100 off the price of a laptop, desktop computer, or tablet.

Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel introduced a draft proposal that would set the rules for allocating the $3.2 billion in emergency relief. Congress stipulated that the money would be available to households that: are at the poverty line or 135 percent above it; or if individuals have experienced substantial loss of income since February 29, 2020; or, they have been approved to receive benefits from the free and reduced price lunch program, or received a Federal Pell Grant. While the proposal has been sent to the three commissioners for a vote, it is unclear when the vote on the EBPP proposal would take place.

Presentation on Improving Broadband Mapping Data

To help resolve the digital divide, the Commission heard a presentation on the work the agency is doing to improve its broadband maps. Congress directly appropriated $65 million to help the agency develop better data for improved maps. The FCC for years has been addressing these problems using maps that don’t accurately reflect where broadband service exists and where it does not.  Acting Chairwoman Rosenworcel has launched a broadband mapping task force to improve the FCC’s broadband maps. It could take up to one year for the agency to accurately track broadband accessing data.