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Jordan Rodriguez, director of the Mulberry Street club, works with Santana Sanford, 7, a second grade student, as he does his school work on a laptop computer in Reading, Pennsylvania on January 19, 2021. (Photo: Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/<em>Reading Eagle</em> via Getty Images)

Jordan Rodriguez, director of the Mulberry Street club, works with Santana Sanford, 7, a second grade student, as he does his school work on a laptop computer in Reading, Pennsylvania on January 19, 2021. (Photo: Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)

Permanent Program Demanded After Over 1 Million Families Seek Pandemic Broadband Benefit

"The high cost of high-quality internet service has posed a persistent barrier that keeps lower-income families from the resources they need to work, live, and learn."

The incredible popularity of a new U.S. government initiative to help low-income families get online during the Covid-19 pandemic has led some justice advocates to demand lawmakers do more, with one group on Thursday calling for a permanent program to close the "digital divide" that research suggests is getting worse.

"We urge Congress to work with the Federal Communications Commission to put a permanent program in place to satisfy the needs of our communities after the EBB program is over."
—Brandon Forrester, MediaJustice

Federal Communications Commission Acting Chair Jessica Rosenworcel announced in a statement Thursday that over one million households from all 50 states, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and American Samoa enrolled in the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program (EBBP) during its first week.

"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," she said. "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."

The temporary program was unanimously approved by FCC commissioners in February, after Congress allocated $3.2 billion to it in the December Covid-19 relief package. The EBBP will only last until that funding runs out or six months after the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declares the pandemic is over.

Under the program, eligible households—which include people enrolled in certain government assistance programs or pandemic relief programs of internet service providers (ISPs)—get discounts of up to $50 a month, or $75 on tribal lands, for broadband service. There is also a one-time $100 discount for a computer or tablet.

"Over 900 broadband providers have agreed to take part in the program," according to the FCC statement. "Customers can sign up by contacting a participating provider, enroll online at https://www.getemergencybroadband.org, or sign up via mail. To learn more or learn where to access a mail-in application, call (833) 511-0311."

While the agency and U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce celebrated the program's first week as a significant step forward, since its launch, critics of the digital divide have doubled down on calls for policymakers to go even further to boost broadband access.

"The Emergency Broadband Benefit Program has the potential to help millions of families, too often people of color and other communities who have been historically divested from, get connected online and have access to everything the internet makes possible and is necessary for today," said Brandon Forrester, national organizer for internet rights and platform accountability at MediaJustice, in a statement Thursday.

"The high cost of high-quality internet service has posed a persistent barrier that keeps lower-income families from the resources they need to work, live, and learn," Forrester said. "We urge Congress to work with the Federal Communications Commission to put a permanent program in place to satisfy the needs of our communities after the EBB program is over."

MediaJustice has also created a website to help potential applicants to the EBBP.

"At EBBhelp.org, individuals can find out if they are eligible for free or discounted internet and will have access to all the tools they need to learn more about the benefits program and how to apply," Forrester explained. "To close the digital divide, we need to reduce the stigma of not being able to afford home broadband, demystify federal agency applications for these discounts, and encourage people not to miss out on this opportunity to sign up for these long-awaited resources."

"Though more than a million people have enrolled," he added, "the hard work of reaching the most disconnected and marginalized is still ahead of us and we hope EBBhelp.org is a tool anyone can use to help those in their communities to sign up who need [the benefit] most."

While the EBBP is now providing welcome relief to some U.S. families, Washington Post technology columnist Geoffrey Fowler highlighted on Monday that "companies like Verizon are twisting it into an opportunity for an upsell," which "might be allowed by the letter of the law but certainly isn't the spirit of the program."

Eric of Hopedale, Massachusetts told Fowler that getting the $50 discount would require him to switch from paying $62 for no-contract internet service to a $79 Verizon Fios plan. He wrote in an email to the columnist, "I'm sure the whole point of Fios doing this is to get more people to sign up for either their TV or mobile services."

Fowler also shared other stories of Post readers' experiences with the program:

Annie Styles from Arlington, Virginia, 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. "I stopped pursuing it with them after the math didn't work out," she says.

Sharon from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, who asked to be identified only by her first name, said 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 said the ultimate price would have depended on what video package she was forced to switch to, as well as new equipment with fees—but she dropped her EBB application out of frustration before she got that far.

When the EBB ends, she estimates, her overall monthly internet and TV bill would be at least $50 higher. "In my case, it seems like EBB only benefits Verizon," she said.

Verizon spokesperson Alex Lawson told the Post that the company's website makes clear which plans qualify for the program, adding: "There's really no story here. We're on the side of the customer and want to ensure they pay for what they need, and not for what they don't."

However, Dana Floberg, policy manager at the group Free Press Action, called Verizon's reported behavior "tremendously disappointing."

In a Free Press analysis of the EBBP last week, Floberg highlighted the group's recent report that revealed "monthly broadband costs continue to rise much faster than the rate of inflation" and "low-cost options are all but disappearing as providers keep raising the price of their entry-level service tiers."

"These problems existed long before the pandemic, and we need long-term solutions for them," she wrote. "But establishing the EBB program is still a huge opportunity for those who've been struggling during this health crisis to receive some long-overdue relief—and to make certain they can get and stay connected to the internet."

The ACLU echoed that message on Twitter when the EBBP launched last week.

"This is progress, but broadband was a necessity before the pandemic and will continue to be one long after. We must do more," the group said. "Passing the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act would be an important step."

That legislation, reintroduced in March by Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), would invest $94 billion in improving U.S. broadband infrastructure and making internet access more affordable.


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