Digital divide advocates had hoped more participants would be using the Emergency Broadband Benefit by now. There’s still 81% of the funds remaining.
By: Tamara Chuang 4:38 AM MDT on Oct 7, 2021
A$50 credit on monthly internet service could mean the difference between having broadband and not having internet at all.
But from the looks of federal data, there hasn’t been much interest in claiming the money made available by the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program.
The program launched in May and provides low-income consumers up to $50 off their monthly broadband bill (or $75 for those living on Tribal lands). But five months after it launched, EBB serves just over 63,000 households in Colorado, a fraction of those who qualify. Everyone on Medicaid is eligible and that’s 1.5 million people in Colorado.
“The current number of EBB enrolled households is 63,019, which is 13.4% participation. Compared to other states, that percentage is in the lower middle range (highest is Puerto Rico 31%, lowest is South Dakota, about 4%),” state Chief Information Officer Tony Neal-Graves said in an email. “We are currently evaluating our outreach strategy.”
The $3.2 billion national program, funded by a federal COVID relief package, has made changes to simplify the enrollment process for users and internet providers. But there’s been a minimal amount spent on marketing to get the word out. About 6 million U.S. households had enrolled nationwide as of Oct. 4. The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society estimates said that represents just 16% of the eligible U.S. population. There’s still $2.5 billion available.
The monthly benefit is offered to those living at or below 135% of federal poverty levels. It’s also available to those eligible for federal assistance programs, such as free and reduced school lunch, Pell Grants and Lifeline, and Medicaid, which in April had 82.3 million individuals enrolled nationwide.
Joel Shadle, a Comcast spokesman, said that not even all of Comcast’s customers of its budget-friendly Internet Essentials service have opted into EBB. If they did, their $9.95 broadband bill would be free. He has a few ideas about why customers aren’t claiming the benefit.
“Awareness is probably one of them. We’re working hard to make sure that if they do know about it, (then) they take the next step and actually go and do it,” Shadle said. “There are a lot of variables involved I would say, but we’re going to continue to keep raising awareness about it.”
Keeping users connected
John Horrigan, a senior fellow at the Benton Institute, said national data is showing that only about 25% of lower-income households have heard about EBB. But if you look at the numbers, the money seems to be hitting the target.
“You find that households who say they have signed up for these offers are more likely to be low income and they’re more likely to be K-12 households and we know the homework gap was a big focus of doing those programs in the first place,” Horrigan said. “In the city of Philadelphia, for instance, probably a quarter of the households with school-aged children have signed up for one of these programs. That’s a significant number and I think (EBB) is reaching the target populations.”
He said about two-thirds of participants use EBB to pay for wireless and mobile internet, with the rest paying for traditional broadband. He suspects that many wireless users are able to upgrade their data plans with the credit, while continuing to pay for discounted internet like Internet Essentials from Comcast.
It’s been a boon for other Colorado internet companies, like Starry, which offers Starry Connect, its budget internet service, to 7,000 low-income Denverites. At $15 a month, Starry Connect has speeds of 30 Mbps and is EBB eligible. But even its pricier service at $50 is covered by EBB.
“That benefit will cover the entire cost of broadband service for the household while the program remains in effect,” Starry spokeswoman Mimi Ryals said.
Over at WOW! in Englewood, the cable internet provider has signed up thousands of customers, according to Joel Tyus, WOW!’s director of internet products.
“The EBB program has been incredibly helpful to customers that have been negatively affected financially by the pandemic, and for those with a need for additional flexibility within their budget,” Tyus said in an email.
But digital-equity advocates say it’s not just a lack of awareness contributing to the low-adoption of EBB. It’s also other factors that are familiar within low-income communities, said Amy Huffman, policy director for the National Digital Inclusion Alliance.
“First, is a lack of trust in the program itself — $50 a month off one’s internet bill can seem too good to be true for many, and they may immediately distrust the program,” Huffman said in an email. “Second, is the temporary nature of the program. Not knowing how long the benefit will last can make the people and the community-based organizations who are assisting households uneasy and less likely to commit to the program.”
NDIA wants Congress to make EBB permanent and provide funding to community organizations that are often the local organizers that promote awareness and support enrollment of such programs, she said.
“While 6 million households have enrolled in the program, we know that many more households who could benefit from the program are not yet enrolled,” she said.
Getting the credit
Comcast has long offered its Internet Essentials service to low-income families. Since launch, about a half million Colorado customers have taken advantage of the discounted internet service at one time or another. During COVID, the company increased the speeds to 50 megabits per second but kept prices the same at $9.95 a month.
Shadle wouldn’t say how many customers have joined EBB but he said it’s available to more than just previously qualified low-income families. EBB is also available to people who lost their jobs during COVID and saw their household income drop below $99,000 for single filers and $198,000 for joint filers. The $50 credit can be used for more expensive broadband plans and is also available to those with a past-due balance.
“Our goal is to help people connect to the internet and stay connected,” Shadle said. “We want to encourage our customers who qualify for EBB to sign up right away if they haven’t already.”
The process starts with a consumer verifying eligibility at getemergencybroadband.org, which is overseen by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission. After determining they’re eligible, customers then apply with their local internet provider. The credit shows up on the next bill. There are 1,200 internet providers participating nationwide, including about 70 in Colorado.
But that’s when it might get frustrating — for the customer and the company. Jade Communications, the family-run broadband service in Alamosa, decided not to participate in EBB.
“Despite how great it is and how good the intention is, sometimes the execution isn’t always there,” said Jordan Wehe, Jade’s marketing director. “It was incredibly cumbersome. So we decided to go out on our own and really try to help the community. We lowered the cost of our gigabit service 35% (and) increased the speed in both our service tiers.”
Jade’s basic service tier, offering speeds of 100 mbps up and down, is $55.
Shadle, with Comcast, said there were some complications early on in the program. A key part that still exists is that if a customer was approved for the federal benefit, they would have to make sure they applied at Comcast with the exact same information — to a T.
“Things like writing out ‘Street,’ or abbreviating it as ‘St.’ — that could lead to an error in signing up.”Joel Shadle, Comcast spokesman
“Things like writing out ‘Street,’ or abbreviating it as ‘St.’ — that could lead to an error in signing up,” said Shadle, who recommends users write down everything they entered on the EBB application website — even if it’s on a sticky note — before entering the same information into xfinity.com/ebb.
Sometime later in the summer, the FCC improved the process to help internet providers get more insight into errors, Shadle said. If you’ve applied in the past and were rejected, you should try again, he said.
“While we (ISPs) have more ability to troubleshoot potential errors for customers in signing up, having the information as they entered it into the EBB website can still be useful in moving the process forward,” he said.
EBB doesn’t have a defined end date, but by law, it will continue until the $3.2 billion runs out or six months after the Health and Human Services Secretary declares an end to the COVID-19 pandemic, FCC spokeswoman Paloma Perez said in an email.
“We hope this benefit will lead to a more permanent program,” Neal-Graves, the state’s CIO said. “There have been indications from the FCC that this might be longer-term, but as of now, no program has been identified as a replacement or continuation.”
And permanency would help EBB gain more traction with its target audience, said Horrigan, with the Benton Institute. During the pandemic, one in five low-income households lost connectivity. Closer to a third of the lowest income households lost their internet connection, he said.
“For low-income households, connectivity is fragile and often tenuous,” he said. “What the pandemic has shown is that not everybody has connectivity, but for those who have it, it can be fragile and economic shocks get people off the network for a period of time. EBB, and a possible successor program, could help smooth out those rough spots for low-income households.”
How to apply for the $50 benefit
- The Emergency Broadband Benefit provides up to $50 a month (or $75 for those living on Tribal lands) to pay for broadband service. There may also be a one-time $100 discount for a computer or other device available from the internet provider.
- Verify eligibility at GetEmergencyBroadband.org or call 833-511-0311 for a mail-in application or print a copy of the application. The application is available in 10 languages. If you live on Tribal lands, here are the eligibility details.
- If eligible, contact a participating broadband provider and apply through the company. The credit will appear on your next monthly statement.
- While applying on the government form, make sure that wording is the same as the application to the internet provider. For example, if you abbreviate Street to St., make sure that is the same on both applications.
- More: FCC’s FAQ page on EBB.
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