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COVID aid is coming to help people pay for Internet service. Here’s who qualifies.

February 17, 2021, 10:18 PM UTC

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Federal regulators are moving forward with a $3.2 billion plan to subsidize Internet access for low-income households, though there isn’t yet a plan for keeping people online after the funds run out.

Congress last year created the Emergency Broadband Benefit program to provide up to $50 a month per household to help pay for Internet service, which has become a critical necessity during the pandemic for work and schooling. Households on tribal lands can get up to $75 a month.

The program aims to alleviate, at least temporarily, the problem of lack of affordable broadband service. Among low-income parents with children whose schools shut down because of the pandemic, 40% said they had to rely on public Wi-Fi because they lacked home Internet service, and 36% said their kids could not complete assignments because they did not have a computer, according to a Pew Research survey last year.

On Wednesday, the Federal Communications Commission said it would set rules for handing out the funds within 60 days. The agency said it would use the same mechanism that it doles out existing subsidies for phone and Internet service through the Universal Service Administrative Company, a nonprofit organization.

The program’s eligibility criteria include households with an income of 135% of federal poverty guidelines or less, or anyone eligible for free lunches at school. Anyone who receives student aid from Pell Grants, or who has experienced a substantial loss of income since the end of February 2020, also qualifies.

“This pandemic has exposed a hard truth,” acting FCC chair Jessica Rosenworcel told reporters after the commission’s meeting on Wednesday. “Our nation’s digital divide is very real and it’s very big.”

Service could be provided by existing Internet providers like Comcast, Verizon, or AT&T, or from newer entrants if they meet FCC qualifications.

The emergency program can also help people who don’t have an Internet-capable device with an additional subsidy for a laptop or tablet. But it can’t help the 20 million or more people who live in places with no broadband service. And the funding will last only so long.

“When the funds run out for the emergency broadband benefit, we’ll have to turn to Congress again to ask for what we should do going forward,” Rosenworcel said. FCC staff is thinking about making sure no participants are subject to “bill shock” if the subsidy runs out, she said. “I also want to think about if there are opportunities for helping those people sustain that service even after the program might end,” she added.

During Wednesday’s FCC meeting, Commissioner Brendan Carr said starting up the new broadband program was “the top priority for the entire commission” and an “all-hands-on-deck effort.” He suggested that the emergency broadband subsidy prioritize households with students learning remotely.

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