When the pandemic hit, affordable and dependable internet became vital to keep the United States going. This sudden change highlighted the glaring disparity in internet connectivity to underserved communities. Congress attempted to remedy this issue with the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB), which offers low-income consumers a $50 discount on their internet bills.

However, panelists during a virtual event co-hosted by the National Academy of Public Administration and the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee on Dec. 15 believe some challenges remain with the program that need to be addressed to get more people connected.

Dr. Dominique Harrison, the director of technology policy at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, emphasized that EBB program are working. According to Harrison, by the end of June 2021, 3.1 million households enrolled in the program, and by the start of November, 7.4 million homes were connected.

“The data also showed that households with low-income in areas with limited broadband access were signing up for the program; this I think is proof that the program is reaching those who need it,” Harrison said.

But the biggest problem remains, outreach. According to Harrison, there is a big problem “where folks don’t know about these internet subsidy programs, and many of them are low-income households who need these kinds of services for everyday life.”

The other panelist agreed with Harrison’s assessment of this outreach challenge. Angela Siefer, executive director at the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, stated that state and local entities need a more concentrated effort to spread awareness of these programs that can help their constituents get the services they need at an affordable rate.

“There is especially an opportunity for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to invest in local outreach, whether this is working with state and local organizations to spread awareness or direct interaction with citizens in these areas,” Siefer said.

“The FCC has an opportunity to allow not just nonprofits but also state and local governments and community-based organizations not just to help people learn about the EBB but walk them through the process and help them sign up whether in person or via phones,” said Evan Feinman, the chief broadband advisor for the Office of Governor Ralph Northam in Virginia.

Feinman explained that getting people the help they needed to sign up for this program was increasingly becoming an issue.

“We are talking about getting people signed up for broadband internet via the internet, and these are the people who do not have that access, so how do we get them the help they need to sign up,” Feinman said.

The FCC does allow people to enroll in the program via paper applications or manual review. However, a recent report from the Government Accountability Office found that more than two-thirds of applicants who underwent the manual review application never finished it. This, according to Feinman, is where state and local governments and community-based organizations are needed; to assist individuals seeking this service.

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Lisbeth Perez
Lisbeth Perez
Lisbeth Perez is a MeriTalk State and Local Staff Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.