Spotlight Exclusives

More Families Could Take Advantage of Broadband Benefit

Brandon Forester Brandon Forester, posted on

One of the many programs funded by Congress to help working families weather the pandemic is the Emergency Broadband Benefit, which allows eligible households to receive a discount to their broadband bill of up to $50 per month or $75 per month if the household is on a Tribal land. The EBB program also provides a one-time discount of up to $100 on a computer, tablet or other device for qualifying households. But while the EBB has been enormously helpful to those who have used it, many families are leaving the benefit on the table. More than 19 million families that qualify are still not enrolled, according to MediaJustice, one of the groups trying to help raise the visibility of the EBB. The Federal Communications Commission reported recently that just $378 million of the more than $3 billion budgeted for the program has been allocated so far. MediaJustice National Organizer Brandon Forester spoke recently with Spotlight about the benefit. The transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Why don’t we start with just a general explanation of what the EBB program is and why it’s important.

Sure. So, the Emergency Broadband Benefit is the first of its kind, a subsidy program to help people afford home internet. We previously had the Lifeline program, which was the first and only of its kind that helped, when it was initially started in the ‘80s, to give people a subsidy towards landline phones. Because we knew that households having the ability to call and to communicate was really an essential service, but there were a lot of families in the ‘80s who didn’t have home landlines simply because they couldn’t afford it. That Lifeline benefit has changed over time and while it could potentially be used as a subsidy towards home internet, it’s such a small amount that it remains more of a mobile phone subsidy.

The current need for affordable home internet led those of us at MediaJustice and a larger coalition of over 160 groups to try to make sure that more families have affordable access to high-quality internet, so they can get online and stay online. We’ve been pushing for this because, even before the pandemic the biggest reason folks lacked home internet access, almost two-thirds of people disconnected in the U.S., is the high cost of service—not a lack of technological infrastructure, though that is a problem in some places. People don’t have internet access because they just can’t afford it. I hate to use these cliché terms, but the pandemic really has brought to light the dire consequences of the digital divide that already existed and have since become much more severe and widespread.

Thankfully, Congress decided that it was finally time to pass a law to make sure that people could get support towards their home internet bill in the same way that people get support for their gas and electricity bills, or subsidies for food and housing. We really see supporting home internet access as an important part of the same overall social safety net that helps people break free from what can become entrenched cycles of poverty. It’s a huge ($3.2 billion in funding) and pioneering program, but it is also a temporary emergency program. If the bipartisan infrastructure bill passes, it includes a long-term extension of the program called the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP). It’s important to reiterate, we do need this type of program to continue beyond the immediate COVID-19 response because the affordability gap existed before the pandemic and it’s going to continue to exist and may even worsen after the pandemic.

Very specifically, the EBB program creates up to a $50 benefit for folks who are eligible. There are a lot of ways to qualify. Once enrolled, the benefit gets applied directly per month to the recipient’s home internet bill. It can be up to $75 on qualifying Tribal lands. There is the possibility of a device benefit too, where folks would have to pay in a little bit, up to about $10, and they could receive up to a $100 in subsidies to receive a device. But really the biggest part is, is just making sure that folks can get a little support and are able to afford their internet connection.

And what are some of the ways that you can qualify?

A lot of the ways people can qualify for the Emergency Broadband Benefit are the same ways that they can qualify for the Lifeline program, and families can receive both benefits together. There’s an income level—if your household is below 135 percent of the federal poverty line, you’re eligible. If people are participating in a host of federal programs, other benefit programs, then they are eligible—that includes SNAP, Veterans’ Pension and Survivor benefits, the federal public housing assistance (FHPA) program and more. There are a lot of Tribal specific benefits for both Lifeline and the Emergency Broadband Benefit, and that could be for example, participating in Tribal Head Start or a general assistance program on Tribal lands. But also, there are some expanded categories, meant to specifically address the pandemic. Some are related to job loss or an economic loss after March of 2020.

What we’re really trying to make sure people know about during this time of the year is that there are some specific eligibility categories related to education. If a household has a student receiving a federal Pell grant, that household is eligible for the benefit. If a household has a student who is eligible for free or reduced school lunch or breakfast programs, that household is eligible. There are also some school districts and some entire cities that have community eligibility. Every student enrolled in those school districts is eligible for free and reduced school lunch, so every household that has a student in one of those community eligible schools—regardless of income, regardless of other factors—is eligible to use this benefit. Take Baltimore for example, every family with a student in public schools in the city of Baltimore is eligible for this benefit. In some smaller and suburban districts, and even some rural places too, many families are eligible for this benefit because of the poverty levels in their communities.

Are people taking advantage of the benefit? I’ve seen figures showing 20% of eligible households have signed up.

That’s one way to look at it, but it is a first of its kind program that was built really quickly in response to an emergency situation. The program was built on top of the same systems as the Lifeline system, but also includes some additional eligibility categories. Within the first month, we had over a million people sign up and only about four or five months out from the program’s May start, there are over 6 million people enrolled. The truth is there’s no way you were just going to flip a switch, and everybody would be aware of this program, the program would work perfectly, and everybody would have the support they needed to sign up.

While we continue to see really robust participation in the program, to the tune of about 200,000 to 300,000 people signing up every month, we have to keep addressing the main challenge. It is really similar to the challenge of trying to count those hard-to-count communities during the 2021 Census. The folks who are most disconnected are some of those same communities and it’s difficult to reach those folks. And there’s also in general, a kind of mistrust of both internet service providers and the federal government. You can’t just put ads online or put an announcement on some federal government ledger—we most need to have robust outreach at the local level, from folks who are already trusted messengers in those communities.

We’re seeing some of that community outreach happening, resulting in increasing applications and higher enrollment, but we need a greater investment in resources here. The initial program didn’t provide much funding for local outreach to raise program awareness. We do see some funding for that in the bipartisan infrastructure bill and we also see some stand-alone bills that would also provide for more resources for community based digital inclusion organizations.

A few months into the program we still see people are still signing up for it, but there’s certainly a lot more work to do to make sure that everybody knows that they’re eligible for it. Eligible households who do know of the program may still need assistance to enroll because the online application process requires an internet connection and a certain level of digital literacy and comfortability to navigate uploading documents into the system for example. Helping people apply also requires resources and MediaJustice has created to contribute to that effort as well as the PSA video included in this post, but these trusted messengers need financial resources too.

And you feel like there is money in these various vehicles on the Hill to help with that?

Yes, there is money for the FCC to actually grant out to other organizations to help do outreach for the program. And really, the FCC is not necessarily the greatest at doing outreach or the best messenger. One of the pieces in the legislation would require providers who are participating to raise awareness and do outreach of their own on the program. Right now, that’s not currently a requirement of participating providers.

I know the infrastructure bill is a moving target, but how are you feeling today in terms of where that’s sitting and EBB being one the priorities?

Oh goodness, it’s hard to say. I definitely don’t have any inside information and I don’t have a crystal ball. The only thing I can say is that there’s a lot that’s important in both the partisan and bipartisan infrastructure bills. This is something that MediaJustice advocated for as an organization and also in the Lifeline coalition that we help to lead, so I really do hope that they’re able to find a way to pass both. Another barrier for potential applicants, and trusted community messengers encouraging families to apply, is that until the infrastructure bill passes, EBB is currently a temporary program. If Congress is able to pass a long-term program it will increase motivation to complete the application and continue getting the word out at the community level.

And you also have the argument that the pandemic forced much more use of digital and tele-access to a host of federal programs, making connectivity even more important.

I think that’s right. This was true before the pandemic and it’s even more true now. We’re in the middle of a housing crisis, we’re in the middle of an eviction crisis, we’re in the middle of an education crisis, obviously we’re in the middle of a healthcare crisis. And the internet is central to all of those things and being able to navigate them.

I’m here in Wichita (Kan.) right now, this is my hometown. We have a state level and a city level eviction relief program and it’s really difficult for people to navigate those programs and they have to do it all online. So, if you’re a family that’s trying to figure out how to keep the roof over your head and you don’t have the internet, what are you supposed to do? If you’re a senior that’s trying to get your medication or figure out how to safely get a COVID test or vaccine booster shot for example, how do you do that without the internet? If you’re a student that is trying to go back to school—and we’re facing these schools shutting down and opening back up with hybrid learning—how do you get your education without the internet?

During the last school year there were 3 million students, who not only couldn’t attend class, but were just completely missing from the system. Schools had no idea where they were. The pandemic really does make home internet access that much more important. People are trying to survive during this economic and health crisis and many ways they are trying to do that depend on having reliable internet at home.

« Back to Spotlight Exclusives