One million U.S. households sign up for broadband subsidy -FCC

FILE PHOTO: FCC commissioners testify before U.S. Congress in Washington
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By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -More than 1 million U.S. households have signed up to take part in a temporary $3.2 billion broadband subsidy program created by Congress in December, the Federal Communications Commission said on Thursday.

Over 900 broadband providers have agreed to take part in the program that provides lower-income Americans or people impacted by COVID-19 with discounts on monthly internet service and on purchasing laptops or tablet computers. Some providers estimate the program, which has been running since May 12, could run out of money in four to six months.

FCC acting Chair Jessica Rosenworcel, responding to reports that some carriers were not allowing customers with some plans to take part in the subsidy, told reporters the practice was unacceptable: "They need to knock it off."

Rosenworcel said consumers asked to sign up for a more expensive plan to take part should file a complaint with the FCC and she pledged to follow up with carriers.

"They may be finding a way to provide service consistent with the letter of the law but that behavior violates the spirit," Rosenworcel said.

Verizon Communications said "moving forward" it would allow customers to enroll even if they have legacy service plans no longer offered.

"We are not asking customers to upgrade their plan in order to take advantage of the (program) benefits. Our goal is to help eligible customers find the plan that best meets their needs, the company said in a blog post.

Carriers declined to say how many consumers signed up. Comcast said the company had "seen strong early participation."

There are 33.2 million households eligible for the subsidy that already qualify for an existing program called Lifeline funded through surcharges on phone services.

AT&T said in January if only half of those Lifeline-eligible households take advantage of the emergency benefit, the new broadband program would cost as much as $800 million a month.

One big question remains whether Congress will choose to extend the program once funding runs out and how it would pay for it.

(Reporting by David ShepardsonEditing by Kirsten Donovan and Grant McCool)