A technician works on a line used to provide broadband internet service in a rural area in Stowe, Vermont. (AP Photo/Wilson Ring)

In 2009, the last time federal agencies gave away billions of dollars for broadband, there were two agencies tasked with dispensing roughly $3.5 billion each. They had a year and a half to do what was then considered miracle work pushing that that much money out the door that quickly. Sometimes it wasn’t pretty, but they got it done.

Today, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is responsible for dispersing more than three times as much money through E-rate and the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) programs. The money comes with a mandate to act as quickly as possible. 

So things are predictably frantic, the rules are not particularly clear, and there’s a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth about incumbents (the local telecommunications companies that were in place before deregulation in 1996) lining up at the “socialist trough.”

Should we be righteously indignant and perpetually PO’ed about the rough journey, or do we light a candle, pray the rosary, and wish the FCC godspeed?

Do You Qualify for the Emergency Broadband Benefit?

EBB provides up to $50 a month in a subsidy paid directly to Internet service providers (ISPs) to defray or eliminate the cost of Internet service for lower-income Americans or families that have suffered significant financial loss during the pandemic. 

Families that are already participating in certain federal assistance programs are automatically eligible. To qualify by income, families must earn below 135% of the federal poverty level (that comes to just under $36,000 a year for a family of four; the rate is higher in Alaska and Hawaii). Families that qualify because of a disruption in income can earn a lot more and still qualify — up to $198,000 for a joint tax return.

Tribal members may be eligible for up to a $75 subsidy.

To learn more about the program and see whether you qualify, visit getemergencybroadband.org.

Lifelines Put on Hold and a New Sheriff in Town

Over the years many of the community broadband and consumer activists railed constantly on the FCC’s Lifeline broadband subsidy program for being nearly useless. Lifeline was a $9.75 a month subsidy that started in 1985 as a “lifeline“ to keep barebones telephone service available for low-income residents. The subsidy was about $5 then.

In the early days of the pandemic, Congress and federal agencies started serious discussions about the possibility of increasing the subsidy, though it seems there wasn’t consensus on keeping the Lifeline name. In the beginning of this year, the FCC gave the subsidy a new name, a $40 raise, and a $100 bonus. 

The FCC started the Emergency Broadband Benefit. The program is worth $3.2 billion, and the funds will be available until expended or until six months after the Covid-19 emergency declaration expires. The EBB provides eligible low-income households with a monthly $50 subsidy for broadband service ($75 for tribal ) from participating Internet service providers (ISP), as well as a one-time $100 discount on an Internet-enabled computing device. 

Quite a few people are happy. The EBB dollars are more in line with what it costs for actual broadband. Legislators are already talking about adding $6 billion more to the program because they fear the popularity of the subsidy might cause the money to run out too soon.

The old $10 subsidy for lower-income families had problems like Comcast’s Internet Essentials have problems, critics say. There are waiting periods before families can begin receiving the benefits. Bad credit can interfere with service. And incumbents charge early termination fees. Also, to qualify, families must have school kids that qualify for the federal free lunch program.

With EBB, the FCC is now defining “in need“ more liberally with fewer hoops that families need to jump through in order to get the subsidy. There’s no waiting. Bad credit with ISPs is not a problem, and there are no early termination fees. 

Other Perspectives

However, not everyone is happy. Some took exception to the fact that Verizon, Comcast, AT&T and other incumbents are lining up to jump in the subsidy pool. A lot of their business practices are the reason broadband is such a mess in the U.S. in the first place. 

Yet, a few of the most ardent pro-community broadband advocates take a more measured position.

“I am as concerned about highly profitable incumbents lining their pockets with more government assistance, but I care more about people on the ground,” said Angela Seifer, executive director for the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. “The Internet is too expensive, and particularly for low-income families, it’s totally out of reach. Quibbling about should ISPs get $50 is mis-directed.”

Seifer believes the biggest problem is not knowing how long the program is going to last. By the time you spend the effort to get people signed up, hooked up, and running, the program might end abruptly. The U.S. has a digital-literacy problem that could lead to quite a few residents not taking the subsidy.

“A person may tell you that they are not interested in broadband, but the real issue is that they don’t understand the technology but they won’t admit that,” said Seifer. “Tech-support can be a problem. Hotspots are delivered to people’ homes but they’re not turned on. Privacy can be a huge issue. ‘If the government gives me a hotspot, they want to spy on me. If an ISP hands me a hotspot, they want to steal my data.’”

Keep Broadband Planning Local

“EBB targets families on the edge of poverty or actually living in poverty,” said Chris Mitchell, director of community broadband networks at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. “Sure, there are incumbents that will make money, but there’s plenty of small ISPs, telephone companies, and muni networks making a living serving small towns. Plenty have lost a lot of revenue because they haven’t cut people off who fell behind during Covid.”           

Funding programs like EBB may be necessary because of the special conditions of the pandemic, but Mitchell doesn’t believe this is the best solution. “Federal agencies are good at writing checks, but they shouldn’t be managing complicated broadband programs,” he said. “This should be left to the local government and communities to work out.”      

In a survey conducted in January, 69% of economic developers lined up behind those calling for “increased local control of broadband networks and policy.” Three quarters of survey respondents said it’s worth fighting for the return of local control over what’s called “right of way” (ROW) to public lands and resources, because that access is essential to broadband deployment. 

Room for the Libraries 

One of the local institutions that can play a pivotal role in EBB’s success are public libraries. For years libraries have had a huge impact on communities’ access to broadband and digital literacy. They are well positioned to help the FCC implement EBB. 

“ALA [the American Library Association] filed comments to the FCC related to EBB,” said Larra Clark, deputy director of the Office for Information Technology Policy at ALA. “We’ve gathered a range of feedback from librarians offering help with promotions and outreach. At a minimum, we know libraries will want to have the information handy to respond to any requests.”

Do You Have an EBB Story?

If you have signed (or tried to sign up) for the Emergency Broadband Benefit, we’d love to hear about your experience – especially if you live in a small city, town, or rural area.
Was it easy to sign up?
Was your Internet service provider prepared to answer to accept your application?
Did you have any issues documenting your eligibility for the program?
And what’s the bottom line on your Internet bill?
Contact us at news@dailyyonder.com to let us know.

Craig Settles, saved from a stroke by telehealth, pays it forward by uniting community broadband teams and healthcare stakeholders through telehealth initiatives.