(CBS) – Millions of low-income households and people who suffered job losses in the past year could soon receive a $50 monthly subsidy to help pay for their internet bills. The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday approved a $3.2 billion plan to provide the aid to help more households afford internet access during the pandemic.
The program will be open to households that already participate in a pandemic or low-income relief program offered by a broadband service, as well as people already enrolled in the FCC’s Lifeline program for low-income people, and households with children receiving free or reduced-price school meals. Additionally, the program will be open to people who have lost jobs and had their income reduced in the past year, the agency said.
Jessica Rosenworcel, the acting chairwoman of the FCC, said in a statement that the program would be open to eligible households within the next 60 days.
The program’s eligibility guidelines could also open the program to the 117 million households that lost employment income since last March 13, when the pandemic shuttered the economy, according to recent data from the U.S. Census. It’s likely that some of those households experienced a cut in hours without losing their jobs.
Experts say the potential pool of eligible families may quickly outstrip the program’s funding. Once the $3.2 billion runs out, the program will end, according to the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, a group that advocates for broadband access.
“There are two things to know about this program: One is that it’s very good it’s in place, and two, it’s definitely not enough,” said Phillip Lovell, vice president of policy development and government relations for Alliance for Excellent Education, a nonprofit that focuses on improving educational outcomes for high-school students.
The education group estimates it would require between $7 billion to $12 billion to provide broadband access to the millions of children who don’t currently have access — an issue that has become acute during the pandemic as almost all schools have switched to online instruction. About 17 million children aren’t able to log onto remote instruction because of the so-called “homework gap,” according to a July study from Alliance for Excellent Education, the National Indian Education Association, the National Urban League and UnidosUS.
The FCC’s subsidy program is “a big win for human rights,” Dayton Young, product director at Fight for the Future, a group that advocates for internet access, said.
But, Young added, it represents “the bare minimum of relief we should be providing to people all across America who are struggling from the impact of COVID-19. Nobody should have to make a decision between buying groceries and paying for internet access so that their children can attend classes online, and yet that’s a decision countless people have been forced to make over the past year.”
The FCC’s Rosenworcel said the program is aimed at helping people who have had to sit in parking lots or outside a public library to catch a wifi signal, as well as free up household budgets that have been squeezed by the pandemic’s economic impact. An analysis of internet bills by the Wall Street Journal found that the average bill for stand-alone broadband service was about $66 a month.
The FCC’s program will also include a one-time $100 discount on a computer or tablet for eligible households. The internet service discount will be as much as $75 a month for those living on Tribal lands.