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Broadband Subsidy Program Sign-Ups Lag Amid Lack of Outreach Funds

Sept. 23, 2021, 9:00 AM

Billions of dollars aimed at helping low-income households afford internet access are going unclaimed as the Federal Communications Commission faces hurdles to enrolling participants in a subsidy program.

Congress allocated $3.2 billion to the FCC for the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, designed to help low-income households pay for broadband services and devices amid the coronavirus pandemic, in an omnibus spending package last December. Roughly $600 million has been disbursed, according to Universal Service Administrative Co. data.

There is bipartisan support for subsidizing internet access to bridge the digital divide, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic. Congress now is eyeing another $14.2 billion to the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program in the Senate-passed infrastructure package that awaits House action.

But to get the money out, FCC officials and their nonprofit partners have to marshal resources for outreach to help individuals understand how the program works and overcome mistrust of government.

The FCC and its partners would be getting the word out faster if Congress had allocated outreach money for agency partners, acting chair Jessica Rosenworcel said. The pending infrastructure package is another chance for lawmakers to create that funding, she added.

“Time and time again, we heard that the success of the program could be improved if there was funding to support the efforts of community-based organizations that spend time providing in-person assistance for families not familiar with federal assistance programs, interacting with internet service providers, or educating low-income households about the technology necessary to sign up for the EBB Program,” Rosenworcel said in an email.

Limited Resources

Nonprofits and local organizations are best suited to enroll low-income individuals because they are trusted in those communities, agency officials and partners said. However, many FCC partners are already operating with small budgets and face pandemic-related financial challenges.

“As the law was written, we were unable to provide micro grants, or other types of direct financial support, to these groups that are best positioned to help individual households enroll,” an FCC spokesperson said in an email.

A Democratic spokesperson for the House Appropriations Committee referred a comment request to the Energy and Commerce Committee, where a spokesperson did not immediately respond. A Democratic spokesperson for the Senate Appropriations Committee did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

It is difficult for nonprofits to take on extra work and not be compensated, ALLvanza president and CEO Rosa Mendoza said. ALLvanza is a nonprofit organization that advocates for technology access in Latino communities.

Mendoza partnered with Univision to do radio and TV interviews in Spanish about the broadband program. Univision conducted the interviews pro bono, she said.

The interviews have reached about 9 million people but more work needs to be done, Mendoza added.

As of Sept. 19, approximately 5.7 million households have enrolled in the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, Universal Service Administrative Co. data shows. The program application window opened for consumers May 12.

The program offers low-income households a discount of up to $50 per month for broadband services and $75 per month for families living on tribal lands. It also offers a one-time device discount of up to $100 for a laptop, desktop computer, or tablet.

People think “it’s too good to be true,” said Kim Keenan, the co-chair of the Internet Innovation Alliance, a coalition of businesses and nonprofits. “Someone should have had the presence of mind to say, ‘If we just give one percent of this money to getting the word out, it could have made a huge difference.’”

Still, the FCC said it has developed more than 32,000 partnerships nationwide with groups like the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, Meals on Wheels, food banks, and libraries.

The FCC said it also has held more than 300 events since April with lawmakers; tribal leaders; historically Black colleges and universities; and other local and national organizations to get the word out.

The commission said it is working with the Labor Department to get information materials out through state unemployment centers and the Education Department to reach Pell Grant recipients. The agency said it also partnered with the National Football League to run public service announcements.

Republican FCC commissioner Brendan Carr, however, said at a recent event that the problem of broadband access can’t be solved by throwing more money at it.

“The reality is we have enough money that has either been appropriated by Congress or budgeted by various agencies to bridge the digital divide multiple times over,” Carr said.

Potential Funding

The Emergency Broadband Benefit Program will expire either when the funds are exhausted or six months after the Health and Human Services Department declares the end of the pandemic emergency, according to the legislation.

The Senate’s bipartisan infrastructure bill, under review in the House now, would extend the program indefinitely but only offer households $30 per month instead of $50.

The Senate bill directs broadband providers, in collaboration with state agencies, public interest groups, and nonprofit organizations, to carry out “public awareness campaigns” to “increase the adoption of broadband internet access service by consumers” and highlight what it calls the Affordable Connectivity Program.

“As the agency prepares for the next iteration of the country’s largest broadband affordability program, we plan to build on these lessons learned,” Rosenworcel said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Maria Curi at mcuri@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Kibkabe Araya at karaya@bloombergindustry.com; Keith Perine at kperine@bloomberglaw.com

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