The just-passed HEROES Act is a massive relief package designed to alleviate the harm of a massive crisis. In it is the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, which would make it easier for Americans affected by COVID-19 to stay connected to the Internet. As the Senate takes up this legislation, it should make Internet access a priority, not a bargaining chip.
The Emergency Broadband Benefit program mandates that ISPs offer a broadband service for free to COVID-19 impacted people that the government will pay $50 per month to cover ($75 per month for tribal lands). Internet Service Providers (ISPs) will also be required to offer the discounted promotional packages they offered as of May 1, 2020, which means any special offers an ISP was providing for high-speed service at an affordable price (including any teaser prices), will be locked in place for the duration of the emergency. The legislation would also abolish long term contracts consumers would be forced to sign to obtain those lower rates by prohibiting early termination fees. In many cases, this arrangement, even in cable monopoly markets, would guarantee that a COVID-19 impacted person could obtain high-speed access for free.
The legislation envisions authorizing the program with up to $8.8 billion and would be operational until September 30, 2021. Eligible households would have to meet one of the several criteria designed to capture Americans who are going to be most negatively impacted by COVID-19, most notably households that had a “substantial loss of income” since February 29, 2020, a documented layoff, or an application for unemployment. In essence, it is a federal guarantee to broadband access during this extremely challenging time.
Broadband Is an Essential Service and Should Remain a Priority
Healthcare, job hunting, communication, schooling–the Internet is vital for the U.S. to weather this crisis. This is even more true for people who have lost jobs, students of all ages who depend on their parents’ Internet, and those living in rural, low-income, and tribal lands, which ISPs have failed to invest resources in. Internet access is not just a footnote in any relief packages, it is a priority.
The inevitable process of negotiating between the House and Senate will force elected officials to make choices on what will and will not be law. If you have a friend or family member who is facing serious economic hardship as a result of COVID-19, you need to contact your Senators and tell them to include free broadband access to the unemployed in whatever final package is produced from Congress.