FCC Broadband Benefit Program; Spotlight on Bulk Internet Contracts

Regulation | March 22, 2021 | by Linda Couch

On March 22, staff from the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) new Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) program joined LeadingAge’s Housing Advisory Group call to discuss how the new program could help affordable senior housing residents as well as housing providers. This article also describes how the EBB program will work for bulk internet contracts.

On March 22, staff from the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) new Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) program joined LeadingAge’s Housing Advisory Group call to discuss how the new program could help affordable senior housing residents as well as housing providers. This article also describes how the EBB program will work for bulk internet contracts.

The EBB will provide support to eligible households with discounts for internet service for $50 per month, per household and a one-time up-to-$100 subsidy for a device such as a phone, tablet, router, computer, etc., for as long as the $3.2 billion provided via the December 2020 COVID-19 relief bill for the program lasts. After the EBB program ends, according to FCC staff, the internet service provider must allow EBB participants to remain on the program at the pre-discounted rate.

The EBB complements the Lifeline program. Eligible households can subscribe to both Lifeline and the EBB program. The Lifeline provides subscribers a $9.25 discount on monthly telephone service, broadband Internet service, or bundled voice-broadband packages purchased from participating wireline or wireless providers.

The EBB program is not enrolling subscribers just yet. The FCC is putting finishing touches on the program and anticipates having public enrollment in weeks, not months, FCC staff said.

There will be a number of ways to enroll in the EBB program. Individuals can apply directly through participating broadband providers or directly with the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC). USAC is a quasi-public entity managing the four programs currently supported by the funds collected from Universal Service Fee on internet and cell phone bills; now, the USAC will also oversee federal funding for the EBB program. The USAC website will have contact information for the providers participating in the program.  

The EBB program is urging organizations to become outreach partners. As FCC staff explained, it is very helpful for outreach partners to help convey information on the EBB program to potential participants. The FCC has information for its outreach partners on the EBB program in Spanish, Korean, traditional Chinese, Vietnamese, and Tagalog. Those who sign up to be an FCC EBB outreach partner will receive updates from the FCC EBB program on when the program goes live and program updates.

Housing Providers with Bulk Internet Contracts

The FCC’s guidelines for the EBB program, adopted on February 25, responded to LeadingAge comments seeking use of the EBB program by housing providers to support broadband provided to multiple dwelling units at a single address, such as senior and student living, mobile home parks, apartment buildings, and federal housing units, that receive service as part of a bulk billing arrangement where the households are not directly billed for services by their internet service provider, but instead pay a monthly fee for broadband services to their landlord. In the EBB program guidelines, the FCC agreed and said the program will “make available the Emergency Broadband Benefit available in these arrangements as long as the [internet service] provider is approved in the Program and the household is eligible under the statute” because, the FCC EBB guidelines say, “These eligible households are at risk of missing out on broadband services supported by the EBB Program because they may not be directly billed by the participating [internet service] provider and may not have a typical relationship with the participating [internet service] provider.”

According to the FCC EBB guidelines, in situations where the support is passed through as a discount off of the monthly price paid by the eligible household, the eligible household must provide consent to the bulk purchaser/aggregator or participating internet services provider to apply their EBB Program benefit to that service, and the participating internet service provider must retain documentation of such consent.

As the FCC says in its EBB guidelines, “[W]e believe that including support in the EBB Program for these eligible households will increase the number of struggling households that are able to benefit from the EBB Program.”

The FCC EBB guidelines include an example. If a bulk purchaser typically provides eligible households broadband service for $30 a month, each eligible household that receives such service must provide consent to the bulk purchaser or participating provider that the participating provider can seek reimbursement from the EBB Program for the $30 a month service. The participating internet service provider would need to retain documentation of such consent, as well as documentation that the $30 that the participating provider is seeking reimbursement for will be fully passed through to the eligible household. As a result of the discount, the bulk purchaser would be paying $30 less to the participating internet service provider, and the eligible household would be receiving free broadband service and not paying anything to the bulk purchaser. In cases where the household does not pay a fee for the service, either to the provider or a bulk purchaser/aggregator, but the fee is paid by another entity, the service cannot be claimed for EBB Program support. 

To ensure compliance with these requirements, the FCC will require participating internet service providers offering service through such bulk billing arrangements to retain documentation demonstrating the identity of the entity or entities through which the discount was passed and the eligible households who received the subsidized service.