Last May, the government began offering Americans struggling during the pandemic a $50 discount off of their broadband bill. But some U.S. broadband providers are already exploiting the program to drive consumers to even more expensive broadband plans.
Dubbed the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB), the $3.2 billion plan doles out money to your broadband provider, who then is supposed to give customers a $50 discount off their monthly bill. The discount jumps to $75 for those living on tribal lands. The program is scheduled to continue for as long as funding lasts, or six months after the end of the pandemic.
825 broadband providers are participating in the voluntary program, and most appear to be complying with its rules. But some ISPs saw the program as a revenue-boosting opportunity.
Verizon, for example, was caught by the Washington Post forcing customers to sign up for more expensive plans if they wanted the benefit. For some users, that meant they wound up paying even more money for broadband than they were before the discount was applied. The company also refused to offer the discount on its older (but still expensive) DSL lines.
Once caught, Verizon issued a press release claiming it intended all along to give “customers a wide range of choices to best fit their needs.” Verizon also faced widespread criticism in 2018 for capping the wireless connections of firefighters, then attempting to upsell them to more expensive plans as they battled an historic California wildfire.
Verizon hasn’t been alone in getting creative in terms of program compliance.
AT&T, Charter, and T-Mobile have all limited which plans are eligible for the discount, something allowed under FCC rules. Protocol also recently reported that Charter, which sells broadband under the Spectrum brand, has been forcing eligible customers to opt in to full-price plans at sign up. If they refuse, they’re deemed ineligible for the emergency broadband discount.
“Charter has been slower to respond to the problems with its opt-in games, which can pose serious problems for low-income families by saddling them with an unexpectedly high bill after the EBB expires—a bill that can easily lead to debt and a myriad of other devastating consequences,” Dana Floberg, telecom expert at consumer group Free Press told Motherboard.
Floberg pointed to a recent study by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that found that one in five Americans owe money to a telecom provider, and collecting that debt is the second most profitable revenue stream for debt collectors behind medical debt.
“If participating Emergency Broadband Benefit providers are making it harder for consumers to receive the support they need to get online, they need to knock it off,” acting FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel told Motherboard in a statement. “I urge consumers who have faced this issue to come to us and share their experience at consumercomplaints.fcc.gov. It's one of the swiftest ways we can get to the bottom of what is going on and address it.”
U.S. broadband is some of the most expensive in the developed world thanks to limited competition. While up to 42 million Americans have no access to broadband, 83 million more Americans live under a broadband monopoly, resulting in high prices, slow service, and terrible customer service — all issues that hit low income and marginalized Americans the hardest.
Unfortunately, a temporary discount doesn’t fix the underlying lack of competition that plagues the broadband sector, or the widespread state and federal corruption that perpetuates it. Other approaches to the problem, like New York State’s attempt to force ISPs to offer low-income users $15 broadband tiers, have been met with telecom industry lawsuits.
Still, Floberg made it clear that the EBB program was providing genuine, broad relief to struggling Americans, but would likely need stricter guidelines if it were to be made permanent.
“ISPs should be required to make all their internet plans eligible for a permanent broadband benefit,” Floberg said. “This would prevent ISPs from taking advantage of low-income customers by forcing them onto particular plans, and has the benefit of giving more power to the families themselves to decide what kinds of internet services best fit their needs.”
Those struggling to afford broadband during the Covid crisis can grab more detail on the temporary Emergency Broadband Benefit program at the FCC website.