Diversity & Inclusion
COVID-19 / Digital access / Education / Federal government / Internet

The US government’s next pandemic aid will cover broadband. What will it mean for Baltimore’s digital divide?

The Emergency Broadband Benefit is seeking to address a key digital access barrier: Affordability. Here’s how it will work, and what it will take to get it to the thousands of residents who are eligible.

All aboard! (Gif via Giphy.com)
Disclosure: Adam Echelman is a cofounder of the Baltimore Digital Equity Coalition, the Executive Director of Libraries Without Borders US. and Humanity in Action Alfred Landecker Fellow. This article was independently reported.
Updated to reflect the FCC's current timeline for EBB enrollment. (4/29/21, 6:13 p.m.)
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government has offered direct stimulus checks and targeted relief over the last year. The next area it’s supporting: Broadband.

The pandemic has put a spotlight on the high cost of internet, which remains the chief reason why so many US households still lack access to a connection at home.  Entrepreneurs and nonprofit organizations across Baltimore are creating new networks to increase competition and lower costs. Yet in a city where one in four households lack high-speed internet, the problem may be too large for city or even state organizations to tackle. On May 12, the Federal Commissions Commission (FCC) will launch the “Emergency Broadband Benefit” (EBB), which will provide between $10 and $50 per month to offset the cost of internet. This $3.2 billion initiative is the most ambitious program in history of its kind.

Yet the FCC has struggled to enroll individuals in the past for similar programs due to mismanagement, poor communications and regulation. If enrollment for the EBB follows the same previous trends, these public benefit programs may lose their political support at a critical moment. On the other hand, high enrollment for the EBB could further bolster the case to make internet a public utility.

Encouraging signups

In 2009, Shawn Gross created a strategy to combat learning loss in the event of an H1N1 pandemic in the U.S. Now, as the digital equity program manager with Baltimore City Public Schools, he is rolling out a comprehensive strategy for the EBB. He is working with other administrators to train teachers and staff on the benefit. They will robo-call families, and post banners on the school website and social media accounts alerting households about the upcoming EBB. Because City Schools provides free lunch to all of its 79,187 public school students through “Community Eligibility,” every household with a public school student will be eligible.

Smartly dressed in a plaid shirt and khakis and well-versed in internet policy, Gross is emphatic about the unprecedented opportunities to close the digital divide this year, but he is wary of the role of internet service providers.

“We want to be in a position to police what’s going on so that families understand their rights and what they’re getting,” he said over Zoom.

Even though households can enroll through multiple channels, Baltimore City Public Schools will encourage families to sign up directly through the federal government’s portal rather than with their internet service provider.

“That will enable them to best understand all of the available options out there,” he said.

Additionally, any student on Pell grants, any adult enrolled in other FCC programs or low-cost internet service plans like Comcast’s Internet Essentials, or any adult who has lost their job or experienced a substantial loss of income due to COVID-19 can qualify for the EBB. The program also includes a $100 discount towards the purchase of a laptop, desktop computer, or tablet, provided that the customer contributes between $10 and $50 dollars themselves.

EBB Flyer by Baltimore Digital Equity Coalition

The EBB hinges on the participation of internet providers to deliver the discounted service to families. That same model characterized a previous FCC program, known as Lifeline. Launched in 1985, Lifeline provides $9.25 per month for qualifying families towards telephone bills.

The FCC expanded the coverage of Lifeline in 2016 to include internet, which positions the program to serve as the administrative framework for the upcoming EBB. Today, fewer than one-third of eligible Maryland households have signed up for Lifeline due to a myriad of regulatory and political failures. Comcast XFinity, one of Baltimore’s most prominent internet providers, does not currently offer Lifeline for city residents.

However, Comcast XFinity will participate in a limited version of the EBB, accepting the $10 to $50 internet benefit, but declining to sell any discounted computers. That decision may dramatically increase enrollment in Baltimore when it begins later this month, at least when compared to the Lifeline program.

For youth and adults who worry about  poor quality with Comcast XFinity’s low-cost Internet Essentials program, there is a silver lining, too: They can upgrade to a more expensive plan and still pay the same amount or less because of the EBB.

Other internet service providers like Verizon (Fios), Charter (Spectrum), AT&T and T-Mobile have agreed to participate in the EBB, as well. Of these large, national providers, only T-Mobile will offer discounted computing devices. The nonprofit computer refurbisher PCs for People, which expanded to Baltimore in 2020, is an eligible provider, too.

Looking ahead

Even with programs like Lifeline and the EBB in place, issues around internet affordability will likely continue long after the pandemic subsides. The EBB was created in the Consolidated Appropriations Act, passed by Congress late last year to stimulate the economy. As such, it is designed to be temporary and will end when funds run out, or six months after the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declares an end to the pandemic.

The EBB hinges on the participation of internet providers to deliver the discounted service to families.

U.S. Rep. James Clyburn and U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar recently introduced a bill which would double the funding—and extend the timeline—for the EBB into 2022.

According to Brandon Forester, the national organizer for internet rights and platform accountability at MediaJustice, Biden’s recent $2 trillion dollar infrastructure proposal to Congress has subsumed components of the Klobuchar/Clyburn bill related to the EBB, although the full extent of the infrastructure bill remains unclear. Dana Floberg, policy manager with the advocacy group Free Press said she is “reasonably optimistic” that the infrastructure bill could pass in some iteration with an EBB extension. “…But with the wheel of Congress so reliably gummed up,” she admitted over email, “it really is anybody’s guess.”

Internet providers are interested in extending the program, as well.

“If there’s a permanent program, we’re looking to make sure companies like Comcast can continue to participate,” said Misty Allen, Vice President of Government/Regulatory Affairs & Community Impact at Comcast.

Forester is more skeptical.

“Providers are pushing to make it permanent, too, but they want to do it in a way that’s harmful,” he said in a phone interview.

He said that the FCC will provide the $10 to $50 monthly subsidy to the providers, not the customers. Without proper regulation, he worries that the EBB could raise the “price floor” for monthly internet costs. Allen declined to comment on the specifics on Comcast’s long-term strategy.

In Baltimore, the need for reliable internet and technology at home will grow regardless of how Congress acts. Gross foresees that Baltimore City Public Schools will continue to use digital learning as a key tool.  In fact, he is hopeful that the FCC will redefine a classroom to encompass remote learning so that Baltimore City children at home can benefit from federal programs in the future.

“As far as [the] printed textbooks and paper and pencil type of learning,” he said, and then, paused: “This District isn’t going to go backwards.”

Companies: Baltimore City Public Schools / Comcast

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