The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) today announced that over 1 million households have signed up for the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) during the first week of the program, which offers temporarily subsidized broadband to qualifying households.
"The high demand we've seen for the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program demonstrates what many of us already knew to be true – too many families are struggling to get online, even in 2021. Help is here. As an agency, we're continuing to focus our efforts on reaching as many communities as possible, so they can get the support they need," said Jessica Rosenworcel, acting chairwoman of the FCC, in a press release.
The FCC asserts that over 900 broadband providers have signed up to participate in the program, in all 50 states as well as Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and American Samoa.
However, according to reporting in the Washington Post, some telcos may be using the federal subsidy as an opportunity to upsell consumers into more expensive plans, saying that some customers' older and existing plans do not qualify.
The Washington Post, which received tips from readers attempting to sign up for EBB, points specifically to Verizon and AT&T, which both require customers to call to inquire about enrolling in the program rather than signing up online.
"Annie Styles from Arlington, Va., who pays $79 per month for her Internet, says Verizon told her she would have to switch to a plan that would cost her closer to $95," writes the Post, adding that she then stopped pursuing the application.
Another customer from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, told the Washington Post that she "was told by two customer service representatives that she could receive the EBB discount only if she increased her current Internet speed and reconfigured her TV package, too." She, too, then dropped her application "out of frustration."
While these plans would still be less expensive for customers in the interim, the EBB is scheduled to end when the $3.2 billion fund runs out of money, or six months after the Department of Health and Human Services declares an end to the COVID-19 health emergency.
Whenever that date comes, it will leave customers forced into higher-priced "qualifying" plans with a bigger Internet bill than before they signed up for the subsidy.
Notably, the Washington Post said that Comcast appeared to be the exception amongst the national ISPs, with spokesman Joel Shadle saying that "if a customer is on an old plan that's not offered anymore, they are still eligible as long as they meet the qualification criteria for EBB."
In an email to Broadband World News, the FCC confirmed that it's aware of the concerns being raised by consumers: "We are very aware of the reported issues with some Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) Program providers like Verizon. We recommend consumers who are experiencing issues/or have feedback about the EBB Program, share details at https://www.consumercomplaints.fcc.gov," said Paloma Perez, press secretary to Acting Chair Rosenworcel.
Further, she said: "EBB enrolled households must affirmatively opt-into receiving service as the EBB Program is projected to end. They will not automatically continue to receive internet service when the program concludes. As part of the rules for the program, a participating provider must give a consumer notice about the last date or billing cycle that the full benefit will apply to their bill and the date or billing cycle that a partial benefit will apply to their bill, in addition to information about the cost of their broadband service after the program ends."
The $3.2 billion Emergency Broadband Benefit program allows households to receive up to $50/monthly discounts ($75 for homes on Tribal lands) on broadband services, and up to $100 toward a device, if they participate in assistance programs like SNAP, Medicaid or Lifeline. The EBB is also available to "households who are eligible for a broadband provider's existing COVID relief program, to those who have received a Federal Pell Grant during the current award year, and to those low-income households who suffered a large loss in income during the pandemic due to job loss or furlough since February 29, 2020," according to the FCC.
The FCC encourages people to enroll online at GetEmergencyBroadband.org or call (833) 511-0311 for more information.
— Nicole Ferraro, contributing editor and host of "The Divide" and "What's the Story?" Light Reading