Millions of Prequalified Households Are Missing Out on a Crucial Internet Benefit

The Emergency Broadband Benefit fund was supposed to be widely available, but not everyone is getting the money

By: Maddy Varner and Colin Lecher

Last week, the Federal Communications Commission trumpeted a milestone in providing internet service during the COVID-19 pandemic: More than five million households had enrolled in the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) program, a subsidy program that provides discounts of up to $75 per month for internet service.

What the FCC didn’t mention is that at least 3.7 million people who clearly qualify for the benefit aren’t receiving it. 

According to the FCC, as of 2018, 25 million people in the United States lacked reliable broadband access, while 14 million lacked any access at all. But even that may be a massive undercount. As The Markup noted last year, the real figure may be more than 160 million people without access, including many people with low incomes and those living in rural areas.

For decades the federal government has offered a program called Lifeline, which targets a specific piece of the digital divide: people who could have service but can’t afford it. The program subsidizes low-income households with up to $9.25 per month for internet service. But during the pandemic, when the consequences of the digital divide became even starker, Congress created EBB.

Despite the pressing need, a recent study from the Benton Institute, a communications policy think tank, estimated that less than 10 percent of households eligible for the program had enrolled. 

Now, publicly available federal data suggest the program isn’t even reaching many of the most obvious recipients: millions of households already enrolled in the Lifeline program, who are prequalified to receive the new benefit. 

If a customer is on Lifeline, they simply have to contact a participating internet provider and ask to enroll in the EBB benefit. But data recently posted by the FCC shows that, while 6.2 million households are on the Lifeline program, just 2.5 million of those have enrolled in EBB. While some customers may use Lifeline but qualified for EBB through other means, that still means about 3.7 million households are prequalified but haven’t signed up. 

The FCC didn’t respond to a request to share state-level data on how many EBB customers were prequalified through Lifeline, but The Markup put together comparisons of the total number of EBB and Lifeline subscribers in each state, which help illustrate where the gaps are especially large.

Among the states with the biggest gap is New Jersey, where, recent data shows, more than 97,000 households are enrolled in the Lifeline program but fewer than half that number—about 40,000 households—are on EBB. In California, about 1.2 million households were on Lifeline in July, but only about 600,000 were enrolled in EBB as of late August. And in Connecticut, the number of EBB participants is a little more than half that of Lifeline participants—about 37,000 households versus 58,000 households.

Part of the problem, experts say, is that lack of regulation surrounding the program is leaving consumers open to exploitation and turning off potential beneficiaries. Other customers simply don’t know they’re eligible for the benefit. And in some cases, like Maria Wilkins’s, it’s unclear why eligible people have been unable to access the benefit. 

Wilkins, a 60-year-old New Jersey resident, is permanently disabled with fibromyalgia. She’s been on Lifeline for about two decades, and the subsidy pays for her phone service. When she got an email a few months ago saying she was preapproved for EBB through Lifeline, she figured it would be easy to enroll for the new subsidy through her internet provider, Comcast. But the company said her application was a “duplicate” and, months later, she’s still struggling to sign up—and worried the benefit will end before she can get enrolled.

“It was supposed to be very easy, and that was almost three months ago,” she said. “It’s been far from easy.” 

How the Benefit Works

Congress created the Emergency Broadband Benefit as part of the more than $2 trillion spending package passed late last year. The bill allocated more than $3 billion for the program and was rapidly hailed by many broadband access advocates as a major improvement on the relatively paltry Lifeline benefit.

Under EBB, most qualifying households can receive up to a $50 monthly subsidy for their internet bill—five times more than Lifeline, which largely goes toward mobile phone payments—or $75 if the households are on qualifying tribal lands. 

The criteria for receiving EBB and Lifeline are similar. Families with income at 135 percent or less of federal poverty guidelines qualify for both Lifeline and EBB, as do those already on programs like SNAP and Medicaid. 

But households on Lifeline are supposed to have easy access to EBB: They don’t need to fill out a new application to receive EBB, just contact their existing internet service provider and enroll directly.

“If your friend knew you were eligible for 50 bucks a month, and you weren’t getting that 50 bucks, you would want your friend to tell you about it, and keep telling you about it until you got that 50 bucks a month,” said Jonathan Mayer, an assistant professor at Princeton University and former chief technologist at the FCC. The agency, he said, isn’t doing enough to promote the program. 

The FCC has said the program has been a success. “We’ve made terrific progress, but the FCC remains committed to building on this initial momentum so we can connect as many families as possible and help those struggling to get online,” acting FCC chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in a recent statement

The statement said the FCC has worked with more than 25,000 partners, including local nonprofits, libraries, and school districts. More than 1,100 internet service providers have agreed to offer the service, the agency said.

In an emailed statement to The Markup, FCC spokesperson Paloma Perez noted that growth in EBB enrollment is now outpacing Lifeline about three months after EBB launched.

“The FCC continues to work hard to raise awareness about the EBB and increase familiarity and trust in the program,” Perez said.

Why Aren’t People Enrolling? 

While the benefit could be a boon to people who lack affordable digital access, there are few consumer guidelines in place regulating how internet service providers actually provide the benefit. Some carriers have sought out EBB customers, only to lock them into long-term or pricey plans.

The Washington Post recently reported that Verizon was requiring households to shift to new, more expensive plans to qualify for the program, potentially saddling them with a larger bill once the EBB program ended. After criticism, the company reversed course. A spokesperson for the company, Alex Lawson, declined to comment but pointed The Markup to a previous statement on the policy change. 

And as Protocol reported recently, Spectrum was requiring customers to opt into full-price plans after their EBB benefits end, although Avery Boggs, a spokesperson for Spectrum’s parent company, Charter, noted the company allows customers to cancel at any time. 

Doug Casey, executive director of the Connecticut Commission for Educational Technology, told The Markup that there indeed have been some “shenanigans” from carriers attempting to hook EBB customers into long-term contracts that extend past the expiration of the benefit. “They’re looking at a ‘freemium’ approach where they’re going to sock you with a $300 a month bill after the program ends,” he said, adding that while the practices are technically allowed, officials have been working as watchdogs to flag the practice and ensure contracts don’t “include scary commitments that will turn people off.”

In interviews with The Markup, state officials and local advocates said there are additional barriers to signing people up for the benefit.

For one, the officials and the FCC said, EBB is still a new program, and for the time being, a temporary one, which is confusing, especially for families who are already receiving the more stable Lifeline benefit. 

Casey said Connecticut was working with community leaders to convince people the program is worthwhile—that “it isn’t too good to be true; it really is free internet.”

Agata Raszczyk-Lawska, an attorney at Connecticut Legal Services, said the state took early action during the pandemic, including setting up families with children with devices so they could connect for school, which partially prevented the need for EBB later. “By the time the EBB program came around, I think for most of our clients, most of them had resolved most of their internet access issues,” she said.

Some states are seeing much better participation rates in EBB when judged against those already participating in Lifeline. 

Ohio and Wisconsin, for instance, have similar numbers of households on Lifeline and EBB, the state-level data from The Markup shows. In a few states, like Alaska and Hawaii, EBB customers have eclipsed Lifeline customers.

Other states argue that their lower EBB participation rates actually signal the success of other programs. 

A spokesperson for the California Public Utilities Commission, Terrie Prosper, said in a statement to The Markup that California offers its own, state-level version of Lifeline that provides an additional subsidy of up to $14.85 to families, beyond the $9.25 the federal Lifeline program provides. This, the agency suggested, made the additional EBB benefit less necessary. 

“Thus, the ‘gap’ between California’s LifeLine participation and EBB participation is best understood as the result of California successfully enhancing participation in LifeLine, which California administers and supports more than any other state,” Prosper said. 

Joel Shadle, a spokesperson for Comcast, said in an interview that the company would look into Wilkins’s problem with enrollment. He added that there have been some industry-wide complications, like requiring the close matching of data between the FCC and service providers when customers apply. Some may enter “street” on one form versus “st” on another, for example, and the application would be rejected.  

“The industry is working alongside the FCC to try to get as many people signed up as possible,” he said.

What’s Next?

Some states say they are investing more in outreach. 

Eva Loayza-McBride, a spokesperson for the New Jersey Department of Human Services, said in an emailed statement that the state “is actively working to connect more eligible individuals and families to both programs.” 

“We are currently working to ramp up promotion (through social media, promotional materials, etc.) and broaden awareness about the benefits provided by both the Emergency Broadband Benefit and the Lifeline programs, particularly to those who we know already qualify because of their participation in other federal assistance programs,” Loayza-McBride said.

Lawmakers seem set to create a longer-term version of EBB. The $1 trillion infrastructure bill being debated in Congress would allocate funds for a program that would effectively extend EBB until $14 billion in newly allocated funds runs dry. If passed, the program would be rebranded as the Affordable Connectivity benefit program.

Under the proposal, the benefit would be lowered from $50 to $30 for most qualifying households (and remain at $75 for tribal lands). While the benefit would be reduced, the new program would also include more consumer protections, preventing service providers from trapping customer’s inexpensive contracts.

The hope, for some advocates, is that a longer-term program will prove more attractive to internet customers. But the lowered benefit amount may mean some low-income broadband customers could also be stuck paying some amount out-of-pocket—a burden for many. As Jenna Leventoff, senior policy counsel for the consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge points out, customers may not even have a bank account to make payments from.

“I still think some consumers will be left with a copay that they can’t pay and that causes them to not participate,” she said.

This article was originally published on The Markup and was republished under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license.


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