By Ryan Tracy 

WASHINGTON -- The federal government is launching a temporary $3.2 billion program to help needy American families pay for high-speed internet service, in what could also be a boon for telecommunications providers.

The Emergency Broadband Benefit program opens for enrollment Wednesday and generally offers $50 a month to help eligible households pay their internet or mobile phone bills.

More than 825 providers have signed up to offer service through the program, from giants such as Comcast Corp. and AT&T Inc. to smaller players such as Dish Network Corp.'s Boost Mobile, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

Jeff Moore, principal at industry research firm Wave7 Research, said he expects carriers to capitalize on the program by seeking new customers and pushing upgrades to existing ones.

"There will be a surge of orders and a surge of business for the carriers, so that's a short-term positive for them," he said. "It's a $50 benefit per month, and who's not going to like that?"

The funding comes from a Covid-19 pandemic relief law that Congress passed late last year. Assuming a wide swath of eligible households sign up, the $3.2 billion will likely run out in about six months, according to John Horrigan, a senior fellow at the Technology Policy Institute think tank who has studied broadband affordability.

Biden administration officials said Wednesday that they expect more funding will be needed to keep families connected after the pandemic, particularly for families with students who lack high-speed internet access.

"There's more that needs to happen," said Chris Rush, senior adviser for innovation and educational technology at the Education Department. "This initial program will be additional input and information to make the case."

Democrats in Congress including House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D., S.C.) have proposed adding $6 billion to the program, part of a $94 billion plan to expand broadband service to U.S. households that either can't access it or can't afford it.

President Biden, for his part, has proposed $100 billion in new funding for broadband infrastructure, both to expand access and reduce the cost of service. The White House didn't specify how those funds would be spent.

Households are eligible for the Emergency Broadband Benefit if they have lost a job or significant income in the past year. They can also be eligible if one household member participates in another aid program such as Medicaid, reduced-price school meals, student Pell grants, Lifeline subsidies for telecom service, and low-income or emergency pandemic programs from private broadband providers.

The $50-a-month subsidy rises to $75 a month for those living on tribal lands. It also includes a one-time discount of up to $100 for the purchase of a computer or tablet. To sign up, households can contact a provider, visit https://getemergencybroadband.org or call (833) 511-0311.

Separately, the FCC this week published the rules for another $7.17 billion pot of funding that schools and libraries can tap to help students and patrons get internet access. The funding, which comes from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, can go toward internet service as well the purchase of laptops, tablets and Wi-Fi hot spots.

Write to Ryan Tracy at ryan.tracy@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

May 12, 2021 12:42 ET (16:42 GMT)

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