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Senators ask FCC for help expanding broadband access

King (I-Maine), Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.) recently sent a letter to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), urging the commission to administer the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program (EBBP) in a way that helps address the longstanding digital divides that block too many Americans from securing a reliable, affordable broadband connection.

In their letter, the senators encourage the FCC to design the program in a way that helps to establish a “durable, scalable model for future digital equity efforts,” and lays out specific steps to ensure that all Americans can access this essential 21st century tool.

“As communities across the country continue to grapple with connectivity challenges as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, we have seen unprecedented reliance on telepresence services, including telework, online education, telehealth, and remote support services,” wrote the senators. “Unfortunately, the already-existing digital divide has been further exacerbated by these disruptions, which have highlighted and furthered the broadband gap that too many American households still face. While Congress continues to work with the FCC and other federal agencies on expanding broadband access to unserved and underserved areas through a number of programs, affordability remains a significant barrier to connectivity for far too many Americans. According to Pew Research, approximately half of non-broadband users’ given reason for lack of connectivity is prohibitive cost, and 44% of households earning $30,000 or less do not have broadband. With the establishment of the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, and with proper, forward-looking implementation, we believe we can make a substantial difference in supporting broadband affordability for the most vulnerable Americans.

“First, while the EBBP will sunset after the end of the coronavirus pandemic, it presents a unique opportunity for the FCC to look at how to address the broadband affordability issue long-term and starting to think now about the longevity of cost support well beyond this program,” the senators continued. “As we know, the ultimate end to the pandemic will not signify the end to the digital divide, and the efforts that we put forth now toward encouraging digital equity must represent a durable, scalable model for future digital equity efforts.

The letter from Senators King, Hassan and Warner goes on to lay out additional steps that the FCC should take in order to maximize the reach and impact of the EBBP both during this crisis and in the long-term. Specifically, the senators highlight the value of collaborating with state and community partners, urge the commission to set the eligibility criteria as broadly as reasonably possible, and emphasize the importance of supporting newer or smaller broadband services, many of which operate in historically underserved areas.

“Finally, it is important to make access to the EBBP benefits streamlined and accessible – both for providers and households, including subscribers of newer broadband service. The program will be most successful when eligible households are readily able to participate without overly cumbersome or restrictive requirements,” the senators added.

“Closing the digital divide is of critical importance to our economic future, and we look forward to continuing to work with you to ensure every American has access to affordable high-speed broadband, regardless of one’s household income or the zip code of where one lives,” the senators concluded. “We appreciate your history of leadership on connectivity issues and working to close the digital divide. We believe that the EBBP presents an exciting opportunity to address the digital divide and affordability barriers to broadband access. With proper implementation and collaboration with state and local partners, it can allow all members of our communities to better participate in a 21st century society and economy, both during the coronavirus pandemic and beyond.”