Rural broadband equipment near the city of Cook, Minnesota, in central St. Louis County. The Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) program offers a needed discount for low-income residents, but for some rural families it remains out of reach, as not all local providers make the benefits readily available. (Source: Tony Webster / Flickr)

The federal government’s new Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) program offers a needed discount for low-income residents, but despite an open enrollment it still remains only a promise for some rural families.

Congress approved the Consolidated Appropriations Act, which pays for the EBB program, in December of 2020. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) opened enrollment for qualified, low-income households to receive a $50 discount on their monthly internet bill or $75 if they reside on tribal lands on May 12, 2021. Residents can qualify if they receive benefits such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Medicaid, or the Pell Grant.

After hearing of this new resource, the executive director of the Manistee Friendship Society, Cassandra Kamaloski in the northern part of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, shared information about the benefit with the residents of rural Manistee County. She became concerned when some clients of the mental-health nonprofit returned to her saying their internet service providers weren’t participating in the program. 

“If the companies won’t participate, our members miss out on these great opportunities in their community,” she said. “It’s been very frustrating not being able to help them with that need.”

“I noticed how frustrated they were,” Kamaloski said. “They rely on these other little companies, but they [smaller internet providers] don’t want to participate, and I don’t understand it.”  The EBB program reimburses participating providers with the discount offered to customers.

A committee called Connecting Manistee County formed in January with the goal of making broadband internet service more accessible through local and federal funding. “For many people, the EBB was a godsend,” said committee leader Scott Fosdick. “[Internet] is a need, not a want anymore.”

The committee is conducting a county-wide survey of resident’s internet service satisfaction. So far, 69% of respondents say they pay over $50 a month, and 86.5% of respondents weren’t satisfied with their internet service. They cited dissatisfaction with cost, speed, reliability, and customer service. Fosdick plans to convert the data into a geographic information system map and share the information with the city of Manistee, which is the county seat, and service providers.

The committee hopes the survey will lead to the county funding a feasibility study to estimate how much money is needed to expand internet coverage.

Manistee County is about 110 miles north of Grand Rapids on the shore of Lake Michigan. The majority of the county’s 25,000 residents live outside the city of Manistee and the county’s five small villages. Internet options are limited.

A media representative for the satellite-based internet provider HughesNet said in an email that the company has been approved by the FCC to participate in the program. “We are now coordinating with [the Universal Service Administrative Company] to implement processes to take EBB orders in our systems,” the representative said. Based on the company’s website, customers are unable to claim the benefit with the company as of June 21.

Another local service provider, Kaleva Telephone Company, doesn’t advertise its participation in the EBB program on its website and is not listed as a participant on the FCC’s website. The Daily Yonder reached out to Kaleva Telephone Company for comment, but no response was received at the time of writing this article.

According to the Manistee County Advocate, the FCC granted the county over $13 million in 2019 to help local internet service providers like Kaleva Telephone to expand coverage and increase speeds.

Media representatives for Charter Spectrum and Verizon claim the companies accept the EBB benefits and are present in the city of Manistee, which has a population of about 6,200. According to Fosdick and Kamalowski, residents in more remote areas and smaller townships, like Brethren, have fewer options and face more difficulty in finding a provider that will accept the discount. 

According to BroadbandNow, a company that finds and compares internet providers, there are 2,782 internet service providers in America. Only about 1,100 are participating in the EBB program, according to an FCC spokesperson. An FCC Fixed Broadband Development map allows users to find providers all the way down to a town or city level. 

The FCC defines broadband speed as 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload. According to email correspondence from an FCC spokesperson, “As part of the law that created the EBB Program, there is not a minimum speed requirement for EBB providers.”

Residents experiencing difficulty claiming the EBB are encouraged to file a complaint with the FCC. The FCC spokesperson said, “If participating EBB providers are making it harder for consumers to receive the support they need to get online, they need to knock it off. We urge consumers who have faced this issue to come to us and share their experience at consumercomplaints.fcc.gov.”