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SOTN 2021: Emergency broadband fund is 'top priority' for FCC's Geoffrey Starks

Geoffrey Starks, a Democratic member of the Federal Communications Commission, declared that his "top priority" for the coming weeks is to expand emergency broadband access to as many Americans as possible.

Under the coronavirus relief package signed into law at the end of 2020, Congress established a $3.2 billion emergency broadband connectivity fund. The bill directs the FCC to create a program that reimburses broadband providers that offer eligible households a discount on broadband service and certain connected devices during an "emergency period" related to COVID-19. The law, which targets low-income houses and unemployed workers, includes a monthly broadband service discount of $50 per household, or $75 on tribal lands, and reimbursement for connected devices of up to $100 per household.

SNL ImageGeoffrey Starks, a Democratic member of the Federal Communications Commission
Source: FCC

"I have great expectations for this program," Starks said in a keynote address at State of the Net, an internet policy conference. "If we are successful, the Emergency Broadband Benefit will reach more disconnected low-income people and households of color than any previous FCC effort to close the digital divide," he added.

The challenge, Starks says, is that Congress has only given the agency 60 days to set up the program. In the short term, he says he is focusing on two areas: getting the word out and encouraging broadband providers to participate voluntarily.

He called for a "broad, collaborative outreach effort that is going to have to coordinate across the federal government, but also include state and local governments, broadband providers, non-profits, philanthropy, educators, and direct service providers."

He added that he has begun reaching out to providers and their associations, and he implored the audience to reach out to their own broadband providers to discuss the importance of participation in the program.

ACA Connects, a trade group that represents small-to-midsize cable operators, said in Jan. 25 comments to the FCC that the agency should minimize barriers to entry for providers that are not current or active participants in the FCC's Lifeline program, which provides a discount on wireline and wireless services for certain Americans with low incomes.

"If providers that participate in Lifeline today are given the first crack at signing up customers and consuming the program's limited funds, other providers — including ACA Connects members and other providers of high-speed broadband service — may decide that participation would be fruitless and will sit on the sidelines," said ACA Connects President and CEO Matthew Polka in a Jan. 27 news release.

Polka also encouraged the FCC to consider mechanisms to speed up approval of providers to the emergency broadband program who are not part of Lifeline.

"A broadband provider that has an existing relationship with the FCC and is in good standing should be approved for this program without delay," said Polka. "To hold these providers accountable, the FCC should adopt a model compliance plan or similar measures in lieu of requiring each provider to create its own plan," he added.