Seven months into the life of the FCC's Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) program, a new study finds that the funds may not be reaching those who need them most.
The EBB, which was launched by the FCC in February and opened for enrollment in May, is a $50 monthly benefit for low-income households to put toward broadband service. The program goes up to $75/month for households on tribal land, and it also includes $100 toward devices. The program was established last year through legislation in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to the FCC, EBB has seen 8 million sign ups thus far. But new research from BroadbandNow finds that as many as 30 million eligible households haven't enrolled.
Map showing the percentage of qualified households enrolled in the program per state.
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The study shows that enrollment has been highest in Kentucky; Washington, DC; Louisiana; Oklahoma; and Ohio. But even in those states, only 29%-34% of their eligible populations are enrolled.
The state with the lowest enrollment is South Dakota, with just 3.63% of eligible households participating (or 3,750 out of 51,576). BroadbandNow notes this may be due to the lack of terrestrial broadband options there. However, New Hampshire – which "has widespread availability of gigabit internet plans" – also makes the bottom-five list, with only 3,454 of 66,751 eligible households enrolled, or 6.58%.
In an email to Broadband World News, an FCC spokesperson noted steps the agency took to inform the public of the subsidy, including recruiting 40,000 outreach partners focused on digital inclusion, and creating a toolkit for those communities. However, the official added, the legislation establishing the benefit program did not provide the agency with sufficient funding for outreach.
"Per the law that created the EBB Program, the FCC did not receive additional funds to conduct its own paid media/outreach efforts. This meant that we had to be creative with the resources we already possessed and conduct our own outreach to EBB providers to enroll them into this voluntary program, and to work with us to promote the EBB program to new and existing customers," said the spokesperson.
Further, the official added, the order establishing the benefit program encouraged ISPs to promote it to their own customers. "With over 1,100 participating providers, from small regional telcos to large national providers, this provided each provider the flexibility to promote the program in the way that works best for their customer base."
Data from the FCC shows that $1.1 million of the $3.1 million appropriated for the program has been claimed.
The BroadbandNow data is not the first knock on the FCC's implementation of EBB: Last month the FCC's Office of Inspector General (OIG) warned in a report of potential fraud with the program.
"In short, there are many more EBB-enrolled households that claimed they have a dependent child at certain CEP [Community Eligibility Provision] schools than students who are actually enrolled in those schools," wrote the OIG.
From EBB to ACP
Learning from the Emergency Broadband Benefit program will be especially important as the FCC embarks on creating its successor, mandated through the infrastructure bill, called the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP). This program – which gets approximately $14.2 billion of the $65 billion broadband bill – seeks to establish a more permanent version of the subsidy, rather than one tied to emergency pandemic funds.
Under the ACP, the monthly benefit is reduced from $50 to $30, but a broader range of households will qualify.
The FCC believes that the set up of the Affordable Connectivity Program provides the agency with more tools to make it a success.
"As the agency prepares to transition to the Affordable Connectivity Program, the more permanent nature of that program comes along with more tools for the agency and partners to use for consumer outreach, such as the ability to use program funds for focus groups, paid media, and partner outreach grants," said the FCC spokesperson. "We plan to make use of these new tools to reach even more eligible households."
— Nicole Ferraro, site editor, Broadband World News; senior editor, global broadband coverage, Light Reading. Host, "The Divide" on the Light Reading Podcast