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Here’s How Localities Can Better Promote Internet Subsidies

The federal Emergency Broadband Benefit was supposed to help connect the unconnected. A new study shows that the program didn't achieve this goal, but local areas can help increase program participation.

A recent policy brief suggests local areas can do a better job of promoting the monthly federal broadband discount to eligible low-income households.

The brief, produced by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, examined Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) participation among eligible low-income Americans and found that the overall participation rate for the program stood at 20 percent by the end of last year.

While this rate is higher than EBB's predecessor, the Lifeline program, the brief notes how the subsidy could have helped more eligible households with superior outreach, and shares lessons learned that can hopefully result in higher participation in the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), which will fully replace EBB by March.

One of the more interesting findings is that counties with low broadband adoption rates didn't tend to have many households taking advantage of the subsidy, which offered a $50 discount on monthly broadband bills and a one-time $100 stipend to help with the purchase of an Internet device.

This finding shows that local areas — and even states — can do more to educate unconnected low-income families about the financial opportunity available to them. Indeed, when the brief goes on to examine this issue at the household level, it discovered that EBB participation, in some cases, was actually lower "as the share of unconnected households increases."

"This counterintuitive result suggests that the EBB program is primarily alleviating the cost burden for eligible households that were already connected to broadband in 2019, with only modest impact in bringing those previously unconnected online," the brief said.

The brief also finds that participation rates were higher in metro areas, in more-populated counties, among younger populations and among native-born residents. The brief suggests that local organizations such as schools and senior centers can be key to reaching those who need the program.

"The findings in this study suggest that renewed outreach efforts are urgently needed in rural and less populated areas, among older adults, and in communities with a large share of foreign-born residents," the brief explains. "This is consistent with findings from recent research showing that low levels of awareness about the EBB program, as well as lack of appropriate information about eligibility and the application process, depressed participation rates among key potential beneficiaries."

Finally, the brief indicates that EBB participation was lower among Republican counties. One goal of future outreach should be to "message the new ACP program in ways that disconnect the program from partisan fault lines."

Additionally, the brief recommends sending surveys to both program participants and eligible households that didn't participate "to better understand barriers to participation and potential adjustments to key program parameters such as subsidy level, enrollment procedures, certification rules and device offerings."

Government Technology is a sister site to Governing. Both are divisions of e.Republic.
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