The map shows the percentage of qualified households in each state that are enrolled in the program. (Source: Broadband Now Report)

An initiative to lower the cost of high-speed internet to millions of Americans is growing in numbers but is still a fraction of the total of eligible households, according to a new Broadband Now report

The federal government launched the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) in February 2021 to provide low-income households with a $50 monthly discount on their internet bill as part of a multi-pronged approach to reduce the digital divide, according to the report. Data released in November show that 7.1 million households have utilized the discount. 

But as many as 30 million more homes are eligible for the savings, according to the report. 

The top five areas for enrollment are Kentucky, Washington, D.C., Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Ohio. The states with the lowest enrollment rates are South Dakota, North Dakota, Alaska, New Hampshire, and Wyoming. 

In 2022, EBB will be replaced with the Affordable Connectivity Program. The Affordable Connectivity Program reduces the monthly benefit from $50 to $30, except for those on Tribal lands, where the benefit remains at $75 per month. The Affordable Connectivity Program also expands eligibility, moving from 135% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines to 200%.

“To encourage more adoption and reduce the digital divide, the federal government should do additional marketing of the Affordable Connectivity Program, which is replacing the Emergency Broadband Benefit in 2022,” the report stated. “In particular, states with lower adoption rates should receive higher amounts of marketing.”

Roberto Gallardo is director of the Purdue Center for Regional Development and a Purdue Extension Community and Regional Economics Specialist. Gallardo believes marketing may be an issue. There should be a third party who supports the nonprofits in getting the word out about the benefits, he said. 

Another issue may be that the benefit doesn’t provide enough, or a family may choose to spend that money on cellular service instead, Gallardo said. 

“We know, from international studies, that broadband service in the U.S. is very expensive – it’s more expensive than western Europe. So I think that the $30 is not enough,” he added in a phone interview with The Daily Yonder. 

Brian Whitacre, a professor of Agricultural Economics and Extension Specialist for Rural Economic Development Oklahoma State University Extension, noted that as a nation, there has been about 1 million new sign-ups each month since June. 

“In general I think the progress has been reasonable,” he said. He did note, however, that some studies show households simply don’t know about the benefits program. 

“Alternative ways of getting the word out are likely needed, including messaging in languages other than English and in ‘traditional’ outlets (newspapers, radio, TV, printouts at community facilities like libraries or city hall),” he said in an email interview with The Daily Yonder. 

Whitacre said he has been looking at the amount of support being provided by the program.

“It’s coming up on $250 million per month,” he said. “About $1 [billion] of the initial $3.1 [billion] EBB funding has been spent – so if the 1 million new sign-ups per month continues, the EBB would likely have been able to run until April 2022. Thankfully, the new Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act puts another $14.2 billion into this effort (i.e. the Affordable Connectivity Program). How long that will last will depend on how the sign-ups progress.”

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