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COVID broadband subsidy program sees 'strong start,' but more outreach needed

Just one month in, more than 2.5 million American households had taken advantage of a federal broadband subsidy program aimed at blunting the effect of the coronavirus pandemic. But millions more eligible households have yet to sign up, experts say, meaning more outreach is needed.

The Federal Communications Commission's Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, which aims to assist low-income households and unemployed workers, includes a monthly broadband service discount of $50 per household, or $75 on tribal lands, and reimbursement for connected devices of up to $100 per household. Analysts and industry experts say that the program has been successful so far, though marketing efforts can be improved to expand the program's reach.

The program saw its biggest jump in enrollment during its first full week, adding 1.2 million new households during the week ended May 23. Since then, enrollment has slowed down, dropping to just over 200,000 new households for each of the weeks ended June 13 and June 20.

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Keeping early momentum

Ross Lieberman — senior vice president of government affairs for ACA Connects - America's Communications Association, a group that represents small to midsize cable operators — said the program after its first month has now become "operationalized and routine," but different tactics will be needed to keep enrollments going.

"It's going to take more engagement from a marketing standpoint to reach people who might not know about the program," Lieberman said, though, overall, the program so far has been "positive and a success."

While total enrollments in the program have waned within the first few weeks of sign-ups, households will continue enrollment as long as the need for benefits still exists, Public Knowledge Senior Policy Counsel Jenna Leventoff said in an interview.

"I don't think it's going to stop until it's served everyone who needs it, and we're nowhere close to that," Leventoff said.

Eligible households include those that qualify for the FCC's Lifeline program, which provides a discount on wireline and wireless services for certain Americans with low incomes, as well as those receiving benefits under a free and reduced-price school lunch or breakfast program. Also, any household that has experienced a "substantial" loss of income since Feb. 29, 2020, or any receiving a federal Pell grant are also eligible.

As of April 2021, Lifeline reported serving more than 9.1 million households. Additionally, as of May 2021, aggregate employment remained 7.3 million jobs below its pre-recession level in the wake of the pandemic, according to data from the Congressional Research Service.

Paying for outreach

Community outreach to uninformed consumers is an area the FCC must continue pursuing, Leventoff said.

Claire Park, a program associate at Washington, D.C.-based New America's Open Technology Institute, said more funding should be dedicated to marketing and outreach efforts for the program, citing that earlier translations of program information in some languages, including Spanish, were incorrect or hard to follow.

FCC officials in an email to Market Intelligence noted the law creating the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program did not provide the FCC with funds for paid media or advertising. Instead, the FCC has been actively working with local officials to share information, having administered over 200 virtual public presentations on the program since April. The agency is also relying on earned media, with appearances on popular morning talk shows that target various demographic groups.

Outreach to tribal communities was made a priority "long before" the program's launch in May, the FCC officials said. As of mid-June, some 67,000 tribal households have enrolled, according to FCC data compiled by Market Intelligence.

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Strong start

Overall, Park believes the program is off to a strong start given its temporary nature and its need to be quickly implemented.

"The program was passed in December and [the FCC] had to act on it within months," she said.

The program, which was established as part of a $3.2 billion emergency broadband connectivity fund, is set to expire when its funds are exhausted or six months after the Department of Health and Human Services declares that the COVID-19 pandemic is no longer a health emergency. However, all experts for this story said the need for broadband subsidies must continue beyond current public health conditions.

"The need for broadband doesn't stop when the pandemic is over, and the inability to afford broadband doesn't stop when the pandemic is over," said Leventoff. "We need a long-term program that is similar to this so that people can continue what they’re doing online."