$3.2 Billion FCC Program Helps The Poor Afford Broadband, But…
from the unfinished-business dept
Last week the FCC took the wraps off a new $3.2 billion program designed to help struggling Americans afford broadband during the pandemic. The program was required by Congress as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, and will, once fully operational, dole out $50 a month for broadband service to lower-income American families that qualify. That number jumps to $75 on Tribal lands (a stark reversal from the Trump/Pai era, where the FCC was interested in pulling back on tribal broadband subsidies). The program also doles out up to $100 for a tablet or computer.
With COVID-19 showcasing broadband’s essential nature in more ways than one, it’s a welcome program that should deliver some immediate relief to the estimated 42 million Americans with no broadband whatsoever, and the estimated 18.5 million households that lack broadband access specifically due to the high cost of service. There’s no reason children in the wealthiest country in the history of the planet should have to huddle in the dirt outside of Taco Bell, something interim FCC boss Jessica Rosenworcel was quick to highlight:
“This is a program that will help those at risk of digital disconnection,? Acting FCC boss Jessica Rosenworcel said of the new program. ?It will help those sitting in cars in parking lots just to catch a Wi-Fi signal to go online for work. It will help those lingering outside the library with a laptop just to get a wireless signal for remote learning. It will help those who worry about choosing between paying a broadband bill and paying rent or buying groceries.”
That said, there could still be a few issues here if the FCC doesn’t do a good job monitoring the program. Under the new broadband benefit system, the money first goes to the ISPs, who’ll then be tasked with making sure the money goes to the appropriate individuals. That hasn’t always worked out that well with the FCC’s existing Lifeline program, which doles out a measly $9.25 monthly benefit that low-income homes have to use on phone, broadband, or wireless service. Companies from AT&T to Sprint have been repeatedly dinged for taking money for people that, well, didn’t actually exist.
The other problem is that this is a temporary fix for a permanent, and much larger issue. An issue that the United States repeatedly doesn’t even acknowledge, much less do anything about. It’s the primary reason why US broadband is so pricey and mediocre on nearly every metric that matters: corruption and monopolization. 83 million Americans have the choice of just one ISP (aka a monopoly). Tens of millions more only have the choice between a fairly apathetic cable giant (usually Comcast), and an even more apathetic telco that (usually) refuses to meaningfully upgrade or repair its aging DSL lines.
Republican administrations are literally incapable of acknowledging this is even a problem. Democratic administrations are more likely to acknowledge this problem, but not often, and usually not clearly. It’s much more politically advantageous to discuss the problem in generalities with terms like the “digital divide,” as not to offend companies like AT&T that are not only holding the purse strings, but are literally tethered to our law enforcement and intelligence gathering systems and therefore largely immune from any serious culpability for 100 years of monopolistic behavior.
Again it’s great that the FCC is doing something to tackle the immediate needs of desperate Americans. And the agency in many ways is prevented from doing much more due to the fact the Biden administration still hasn’t appointed a new FCC boss (breaking the current 2-2 Commissioner deadlock). But even when at full power, keep an eye on those willing to acknowledge why US broadband is so expensive and aggressively mediocre, and those (including many in the press and Congress) who enjoy pretending that this problem exists in a miraculous vacuum free of any direct causation.