Americans struggling to afford broadband access during the Covid crisis are about to receive a $3.2 billion lifeline. Dubbed the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB), the FCC program is part of the government’s third Covid stimulus bill, and aims to provide financial relief to the millions of Americans stuck on the wrong side of the digital divide.
Starting May 12, the program will dole out a $50 a month discount for broadband service for Americans struggling to afford broadband access. That benefit jumps to $75 a month for households on Native American tribal lands.
U.S. consumers pay some of the highest rates in the developed world for broadband, thanks to limited competition and regional monopolization. An estimated 83 million Americans only have the choice of one broadband provider, and up to 42 million Americans—double official estimates—lack access to broadband entirely.
This market failure was always a problem, but it’s been particularly problematic during a pandemic in which kids in the wealthiest country in the world have been forced to huddle in the dirt near fast food restaurants just to attend class.
According to the FCC guide, you’ll qualify for the discount if a family member is currently enrolled in the FCC’s Lifeline program, already qualifies for the reduced-price school lunch program, has received a Federal Pell Grant during the current award year, or can demonstrate a significant drop in family income during the Covid crisis.
Those curious about what qualification documentation they’ll need can visit this website jointly operated by the FCC and the Universal Service Administrative Company. Your broadband provider should also be able to guide you through the process, and at launch a list of cooperating ISPs will be available here.
Those who need additional assistance can email EBBHelp@usac.org, or call 833-511-0311 between 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. ET seven days a week.
Dana Floberg, who studies broadband pricing at consumer group Free Press, told Motherboard the program should go a long way in providing some temporary aid during a national health and economic crisis. Especially for the marginalized communities historically hit the hardest by the lack of affordable broadband options.
“The pandemic has made digital connectivity even more important than usual, and high internet prices even more of a burden during a time where many are struggling with unemployment and lost income,” Floberg said.
She pointed to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which shows that broadband bills for the average U.S. home internet customer increased 19 percent from 2016 to 2019, roughly four times the rate of inflation.
“Even worse, there's evidence to suggest that affordable entry-level tiers are disappearing,” Floberg said. “In some markets, entry-level prices have increased by 50 percent or more in the past four years, more than six times the rate of inflation. For disconnected folks, that means the barrier to adopting even the slowest available internet is moving further out of reach.”
Brandon Forester, National Organizer at Media Justice, told Motherboard his organization will have resources available to help guide Americans through the process later this week. In the interim, he suggested users could also check out guides by Next Century Cities, Common Sense Media, and the National Digital Inclusion Alliance.
The program ends when the government runs out of money, or six months after the Department of Health and Human Services declares the end of the federal emergency surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.
While the Emergency Broadband Benefit program is temporary, America’s broadband monopolization problem isn’t. Decades of industry consolidation and heavy lobbying has created an industry dominated by just a handful of powerful incumbents like AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, and Charter (Spectrum).
U.S. telecom monopolies not only lobby to ensure that competition can’t take root, they push laws preventing towns and cities from building their own networks, work tirelessly to ensure state and federal regulators can’t hold them accountable for bad behavior, and even fight against efforts to accurately measure where broadband is or isn’t available.
The end result is obvious, and while consumer groups welcome any help for the nation’s most vulnerable, they say it’s going to take significantly more work to actually fix the underlying problem.