The Program to Help Pay for Internet Isn’t Reaching the People Who Need It Most

At the height of the pandemic, nearly 93 percent of U.S. households with children were involved in some form of distance learning from home, according to Census Bureau data. Yet even when there were few alternatives, lower-income families were much less likely to rely on online resources for schoolwork. That isn’t all that surprising, when you consider many of those families (especially in rural areas) lack adequate internet access they can afford. During the pandemic, reliable and affordable internet access was not a luxury, but an essential necessity.

The FCC launched the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program (EBBP) in May 2021 to help low-income Americans pay for internet access and internet-connected devices. Congress earmarked $3.2 billion in the Consolidated Appropriations Act (passed in late December 2020) to pay for the program, which provides a monthly subsidy of $50 ($75 for participants living on Tribal lands) to help pay for internet access, plus a one-time device discount of up to $100. It is open to people living below 135 percent of the poverty line, participants in safety net programs such as SNAP or Medicaid, those who experienced “substantial” income loss, and certain other eligible groups.

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The program is designed to help bridge the digital divide during the pandemic, and it has helped millions of American households cover the cost of getting connected. However, red tape, technical challenges, and limited Internet Service Provider (ISP) participation have created barriers for some of the people who may need it the most.

“I thought if I could get the [internet access] subsidy then I’d upgrade to a higher level since we were both working from home and my daughter was going to school virtually at that time,” said Gwynn Stewart, a Community Development Educator at Ohio State University Extension, Noble County. Stewart learned about the EBBP subsidy from her daughter’s school and tried to sign up, but her provider, GMN Broadband, said they were too small to participate. “This, again, is another way Appalachian residents are being left behind.”

It likely won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has ever applied for a government program that the EBBP, like many federal programs, involves its fair share of red tape and hoops to jump through. Navigating the process can be especially tough for people who don’t have access to a computer with reliable internet access — the very issue that the benefit is trying to solve.

Some participating ISPs have set up an application portal on their website. Households like Stewart’s, who either don’t have an ISP that provides that option or who don’t have an ISP at all, must first enroll in the program and then obtain service from a participating ISP.

The barriers don’t end there.

“Applying over the phone has a long hold time,” said Lauren Cotter of Community Tech Network, a nonprofit with locations in Austin and San Francisco. “For online applications, older adults with limited digital skills face humongous technical challenges when they have to create email accounts, create EBBP online accounts, prepare eligible supporting documents — which may involve taking selfies and snapshots of documents — and upload them for their applications.”

Roughly 21 million Americans lack access to broadband internet.

“Some ISPs do try to make it easy but even so it’s a challenge because it’s a multistep process,” said Juliet Fink Yates, digital inclusion manager in the Office of Innovation & Technology for the City of Philadelphia. “You often have to first go to the EBBP website and fill out the form, which of course may be a hurdle if you don’t have internet. Then you have to go apply with a provider and if you don’t already have one, you have to know which is the best provider for you. It can be tough to figure out which provider is your best option, and then which plan is the best. Once you do all of that and start the application for EBBP, it often still involves a few phone calls and some back and forth over the phone to get it all set up.”

The regulations and bureaucracy are a potential obstacle not only for applicants, but also for internet service providers – and in some cases may be preventing them from participating.

Samantha Musgrave is the director of Project Waves, a small ISP in Baltimore City that has connected more than 400 households to free internet service since May 2020. Musgrave said Project Waves elected not to participate in the EBBP or its Maryland counterpart, the MEBBP, for a few reasons, among them “the significant requirements related to FCC licensing for participating providers in the program, as well as the limitations on reimbursable costs allowed by the program.”

ISP participation aside, Musgrave said many people who could benefit from the EBBP may not even know the program exists and notes an ironic aspect to the informational efforts. Because the program is primarily being promoted online, people who don’t already have internet access may not be hearing about it. As for enrollment, Cotter says some simple tweaks — such as eliminating an email address as a mandatory application requirement — could make a big difference in making it easier.

That’s why outreach efforts by “digital navigators” and organizations that serve vulnerable populations are so important. Residents of Philadelphia were fortunate to have a network of helpers available to assist them. Last year, the city launched a Digital Navigators program that placed tech savvy specialists in several Philadelphia organizations that work with low-income residents and vulnerable populations. Throughout the pandemic, these specialists have assisted city residents with tasks such as filling out online forms or arranging telehealth visits — as well as helping people find access to low-cost internet and get signed up for it.

“They’ve really become experts in helping people sign up. They have become familiar with the process and the challenges involved and have also become really good advocates for the people,” said Yates.

In addition to broader outreach efforts, Musgrave said the government could also have a much greater — and long-lasting — impact by providing long-term connectivity solutions for households without existing internet service. In infrastructure-poor communities, from rural America to historically redlined neighborhoods like Baltimore’s Cherry Hill, residents don’t just need help paying for internet service. They need that service to be available in the first place.

Roughly 21 million Americans lack access to broadband internet, according to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). In the state of Pennsylvania alone, for example, more than 800,000 households do not have access to broadband connectivity. The real picture is likely much worse: Numerous experts and researchers have found fault with the FCC’s data, which relies on ISPs to supply their own information. There are also questions about what qualifies as “broadband” at all. Research by The Center for Rural Pennsylvania found that median speeds across most areas of the state do not even meet the FCC’s criteria to qualify as broadband.

“The program is not inherently designed as a pathway to establish new internet connectivity to those who need it most,” Musgrave said.

President Biden’s Build Back Better calls for a significant investment to support and expand broadband infrastructure, but it’s unknown at this point how much (if any) of that envisioned funding will survive intact in the final legislation. Currently, the Senate infrastructure bill, which could come up for a vote in the House as early as today, provides for $65 billion in broadband investment, including $14 billion dedicated to a benefit of $30 a month in the form of the Affordable Connectivity Fund. Meanwhile, as of October 2021, 6.3 million households were enrolled in the EBB program. The FCC says it has tried to provide as many options as possible for people who want to participate, but $2.5 billion in funds remains unspent.

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