Aug 27, 2021 - Technology

Internet subsidy program enrolls 5 million

Illustration ethernet cables forming a dollar sign.
Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

A new federal program that offers $50 a month to pay for internet service has enrolled 5 million households, the Federal Communications Commission said Friday.

The big picture: There are tens of millions of low-income Americans eligible for the Emergency Broadband Benefit program, and digital inclusion experts say more on-the-ground work is needed to connect those households.

Driving the news: In addition to the new enrollment figure, the FCC also announced it is providing more enrollee demographic information, including age, eligibility, location and type of broadband service, to help better target outreach efforts.

  • "Through our analysis and conversations with partners, we heard the need for more granular data, and today’s data release provides us all new opportunities to target and engage eligible families who may qualify for EBB but haven’t yet enrolled," Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement.

How it works: The $3 billion program was created to help families facing financial hardship pay for internet service during the pandemic.

  • Eligible households, including those that receive federal food assistance or Pell Grants, can sign up through one of the more than 1,000 participating providers.
  • So far, about $378 million has been claimed since the program began in May.

Yes, but: There have been obstacles to more widespread participation, experts tell Axios, including:

  • Lack of awareness or robust outreach in marketing the program.
  • Lack of trust that the program will do what it claims. "People already have a mistrust of [internet service providers], and a mistrust of government programs," Brandon Forester, national organizer for internet rights and platform accountability at Media Justice, told Axios.
  • Confusion over how the plans work, what happens if the funding runs out or how to prove eligibility have also come up.

What they're saying: "It's not something that you're just going to create a program and all of a sudden everybody's going to know about it, everybody's going to trust it, everybody's going to be able to sign up for it," Forester said.

  • "We have to try to see if we can get resources to people who are doing the work at the local level, but we also have to know that this is not going to be something that we just turn on and it's just over."

What's next: The infrastructure bill would replace the EBB with a new $14 billion Affordable Connectivity Fund and includes money for digital equity programs.

  • "Affordability is the dominant barrier to broadband adoption, so having a subsidized offer is essential," Angela Siefer, executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, told Axios. "We just have to figure out the particulars of how to make it work. We know some of it, but there's probably more barriers and we have to keep learning."
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