Key Tribal Takeaways from the FCC's Final Rule Governing the Affordable Connectivity Program
- The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) authorized a new long-term Affordable Connectivity Fund (ACF) to replace the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program (EBB). The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) published the ACF Final Rule, which largely becomes effective on March 16, 2022.
- The maximum monthly benefit will change from $50 per month to $30 per month for households not located on qualifying tribal lands. The monthly benefit will remain at $75 for households on qualifying tribal lands. In addition, eligible households can receive a one-time discount of up to $100 to purchase a laptop, desktop computer or a tablet.
- This Holland & Knight alert provides an overview for tribes to use when helping educate members of the opportunity.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) published its Final Rule on Feb. 14, 2022, governing the Affordable Connectivity Fund (ACF), formerly known as the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program (EBB), a new long-term program aimed at increasing access to critical broadband infrastructure by focusing on affordability. The program provides benefits directly to eligible tribal members.
What Benefits Can Tribal Members Receive?
Households enrolled in EBB as of Dec. 31, 2021, will continue to receive their current monthly benefit until March 1, 2022. However, households that qualified for EBB because of a substantial loss of income due to job loss or furlough since Feb. 29, 2020, or by meeting the eligibility criteria established by a participating provider, will need to requalify for ACF. The maximum monthly benefit will also change from $50 per month to $30 per month for households not located on qualifying tribal lands. The monthly benefit will remain at $75 for households on qualifying tribal lands. Eligible households can also receive a one-time discount of up to $100 to purchase a connected device, defined in the statute as a laptop, desktop computer or a tablet.
Are Tribal Members Eligible Under the ACF?
Individual tribal members are eligible for ACF if they meet one or more of the following:
- have an income that is at or below 200 percent of federal poverty guidelines
- participate in certain assistance programs (i.e., Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Medicaid, Lifeline Program or Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC)) or are approved to receive benefits under the free and reduced-price school lunch program or the school breakfast program, including through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) in the 2019-2020, 2020-2021 or 2021-2022 school year
- received a Federal Pell Grant during the current award year
- experienced a substantial loss of income due to job loss or furlough since Feb. 29, 2020, and the household had a total income in 2020 at or below $99,000 for single filers and $198,000 for joint filers
- meet the eligibility criteria for a participating provider's existing low-income or COVID-19 program
For households that reside on qualifying tribal lands, individual tribal members are also eligible for ACF if they participate in one of the following tribal-specific federal assistance programs:
- Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) general assistance
- tribally administered Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)
- Head Start (only those households meeting its income qualifying standard)
- the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR)
Key Changes in the Final Rule You Should Know
While the Final Rule seeks to make several changes to improve the services provided, five critical takeaways are summarized below that impact tribal members.
- ACF Maintained EBB's Definition of Tribal Lands. ACF maintained the definition of tribal lands used for both the EBB and Lifeline Program. Tribal lands thus includes "any federally recognized Indian tribe's reservation, pueblo, or colony, including former reservations in Oklahoma; Alaska Native regions established pursuant to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (85 Stat. 688); Indian allotments; Hawaiian Home Lands - areas held in trust for Native Hawaiians by the state of Hawaii, pursuant to the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act, 1920 July 9, 1921, 42 Stat. 108, et. seq., as amended; and any land designated as such by the Commission for purposes of this subpart pursuant to the designation process in § 54.412." 47 CFR § 54.400(e).
- FCC Expanded Eligibility Requirements. A core component to ensuring broadband affordability is to ensure that the program is accessible to the largest number of people possible. For this reason, FCC expanded the income eligibility to 200 percent of the federal poverty guidelines and made households eligible for the ACF if they participate in USDA's WIC Program. Tribal members who were previously not eligible for EBB but participate in these programs may now be eligible for ACF.
- The IIJA Required FCC to Establish a Consumer Complaint Process. The IIJA required the FCC to development a consumer complaint process about the compliance of participating providers. Each provider is required to provide the phone number and website for the Consumer Complaint Center on its website. Tribal governments should educate their tribal members on how to locate these resources to find a service provider.
- FCC is Seeking Public Input on its Outreach Grant Program. The FCC announced on Feb. 14, 2022, that it is seeking public input on the establishment of a potential outreach grant program to increase awareness of and participation in the ACF and for an enhanced affordable connectivity benefit for consumers in certain high-cost areas. Input includes who should be considered an eligible entity, the duration and budget for the grant program, if there are other federal outreach grant programs that could serve as a model for implementation, reporting requirements and more. Comments must be received on or before March 16, 2022.
- There Are Two Effective Dates to Keep an Eye On. There are two key dates that tribal members and any tribal telecom entities participating in ACF must be aware of: March 16, 2022, and April 15, 2022. Of most interest to tribal members participating in ACF is the March 16, 2022, deadline, where their benefit could be reduced to $30 if they are not residing on qualifying tribal lands. By this date, tribal members may also need to recertify that they are eligible for the benefit because of a substantial loss of income due to job loss or furlough since Feb. 29, 2020, or otherwise be required to recertify by meeting other eligibility criteria for a participating provider's COVID-19 program.
Information contained in this alert is for the general education and knowledge of our readers. It is not designed to be, and should not be used as, the sole source of information when analyzing and resolving a legal problem, and it should not be substituted for legal advice, which relies on a specific factual analysis. Moreover, the laws of each jurisdiction are different and are constantly changing. This information is not intended to create, and receipt of it does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship. If you have specific questions regarding a particular fact situation, we urge you to consult the authors of this publication, your Holland & Knight representative or other competent legal counsel.