Localities and States Should Act Now to Help Residents Take Advantage of the FCC’s Emergency Broadband Benefit Program

Heather Mills, V.P. for Grant & Funding Strategies

Cat Blake, Civic Technology Analyst

Localities and states can take action now—before the FCC even issues its rules—to begin to help residents maximize their potential benefits under the new Emergency Broadband Benefit Program. For more details on the program, see our explanation here. Please don’t hesitate to contact us if you have additional questions.

What challenges will emerge from the FCC’s rulemaking?

We do not yet know what guidelines and requirements the FCC will enact for this program—but we believe there are areas of concern in the statute depending on how the FCC structures the program. Most notably, we are concerned there could be a significant burden on families to prove their eligibility and ensure their subsidy is appropriately applied.

A family may, for instance, need to call their provider to ask for service and determine how to apply the subsidy. This is not an insignificant burden for the families this subsidy is intended to help, nor is the potential financial risk to those families a minor point (i.e., they might be responsible for paying $50 or $75 more per month if the subsidy is not accurately applied). That potential uncertainty alone may prevent some eligible residents from adopting service.

A second potential pain point is the burden on small ISPs, which will have to verify families’ eligibility under the FCC rules. For large ISPs this task will be relatively easy; they have access to the federal Lifeline verifier, for example, and many have streamlined processes to verify eligibility for their own low-income programs. But for small ISPs, that could be a potentially insurmountable task.

The federal statute suggests, for example, that an ISP can confirm a customer’s eligibility by calling the local school to verify their participation in the National School Lunch Program. While well-intentioned, this could place a significant burden on small ISPs (not to mention schools). The eligibility verification process could prevent small ISPs from participating in the program—and thus deny their existing or potential customers the opportunity to get the subsidy.

The delay in the availability of the subsidy is a third potential pain point for participants. The law went into effect in late December, and requires that the FCC stand up the program rules within 60 days. They should, at that point, announce the timeline for the initial program launch. While they are well on their way, having issued proposed rules and a request for comments, any delay is an additional burden on many families waiting to enroll. Additionally, it is reasonable to assume the FCC will make the program’s impact retroactive—so, for example, an ISP can bill the FCC for the January and February reimbursement amounts once the program launches in March; however, final rules will bear out the extent of eventual support.

How can local, state, and tribal governments help their residents?

On the surface, the Emergency Broadband Benefit program involves only ISPs, customers, and the FCC: A customer calls the ISP, the ISP verifies their eligibility, and the ISP is reimbursed by the FCC. The reality is that local and state governments can play a key role in helping their residents make the most of this opportunity—rather than assuming the FCC and large ISPs will take on those responsibilities—and in the process, narrow the digital divide in their communities.

Develop consumer education and outreach materials

One lesson learned from programs designed to subsidize broadband service for low-income households is how challenging it is to reach eligible families—and, in many cases, to convince them that the opportunity is real, valuable, and worth their time. The barriers to participation include some of the root causes behind the lack of broadband adoption in general, including language challenges, trust deficits, and fear of hidden costs.

Local and state efforts to develop a public outreach and support strategy could thus be critical to maximizing enrollment in the Emergency Broadband Benefit program. We recommend every local, state, and tribal government think about how to build out a strategy and support residents’ participation in this program. Tactics could include:

  • Developing public communications tools and information campaigns
  • Conducting outreach to community groups, non-profits, and individual residents
  • Staffing a call center of broadband ambassadors that would be trained to help eligible residents understand their options, navigate the process, and engage with ISPs to subscribe

Each of these efforts would be designed to help residents understand and overcome their very prudent and reasonable considerations with regard to hidden fees and other risks of participation. In the event that residents do encounter problems with enrollment or billing, the government role could be the type of consumer protection that it provides in other spheres (such as licensing and monitoring home improvement contractors).

Engage with ISPs—particularly small, local operators—to support their participation

If a local ISP does not elect to participate in the program, their customers will not be able to get the subsidy—because the FCC will reimburse ISPs directly, rather than sending a monthly check to consumers.

In urban and suburban neighborhoods served by large national ISPs, that likely will not be an issue. Indeed, this program will be a windfall for large ISPs that already participate in Lifeline or offer their own low-income or Covid relief programs; those ISPs will automatically be eligible to participate, and will already have the verification processes in place.

But in rural areas and in other communities served by smaller ISPs, residents will only get the Emergency Broadband Benefit subsidy if the ISPs participate. Local and state government efforts to act as a coordinator between ISPs, school districts, and the FCC could help alleviate the burdens and lower barriers to entry for small ISPs that might otherwise decline to participate.

We recommend local, state, and tribal governments develop a strategy for how they can support smaller ISPs and help them not only navigate the FCC’s eligibility requirements for their own participation, but also find the most expeditious possible ways to validate customers’ eligibility, subject to the FCC’s forthcoming rules.

For example, it would be exceptionally burdensome for an ISP to have to call a local school district to verify that a child participates in the National School Lunch Program (not to mention the privacy issues inherent in that scenario). But a state department of education could conceivably stand up a tool (subject to appropriate privacy rules) that would seamlessly and quickly provide that verification for smaller ISPs that do not have the same resources as large phone and cable companies. The tool could be some sort of IT infrastructure (e.g., a website) or a call center staffed by representatives that have access to a suitable database.

Consider offering bridge funding for ISPs and residents

Given the months-long delay in the FCC’s implementation of the Emergency Broadband Benefit program, states and localities could consider implementing a bridge program and entering into contracts with ISPs to provide service to families in February. The contract would protect the public investment by requiring the ISPs to become qualified for the FCC program if they are not already qualified. Then, in March, the companies would be required to shift their invoicing to the FCC to the greatest extent possible—and applying for retroactive payment to reimburse the government entity for its January and February payments, if possible.

Published: Wednesday, February 10, 2021 by CTC Technology & Energy