The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted just how important it is to have a broadband internet connection at home — for remote school or work, virtual doctor’s exams and meetings and many other pursuits. But broadband can be costly, so the federal government offered new subsidies to help low-income households afford a high-speed line and a device with which to use it.
Dozens of internet service providers all across California have signed up for the program, which covers up to $50 of the monthly cost of an internet connection (or up to $75 on tribal lands). The program also authorizes a one-time $100 discount on a computer or other device.
The new benefit is a major upgrade over the Federal Communication Commission’s Lifeline program, which provides only $9.25 a month. The average cost of the most popular broadband connection is $48 a month, according to the broadband trade association USTelecom.
But while the subsidies have been generous and widely available, they don’t appear to have brought many more people online.
As of Sunday, 732,201 households in the state had enrolled in the program, according to the FCC. As large as that number may seem, it’s only about 20% of the households that are likely to be eligible. And Sunne Wright McPeak, chief executive of the California Emerging Technology Fund, said the bulk of the Californians who have signed up appear to be people who already had broadband through the internet service providers’ discount programs for low-income residents — not people with no access to the internet.
The problem, McPeak said, is that eligible Californians don’t know about the program, “and nobody is telling them.”
John Horrigan, a senior fellow at the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society, said a new survey of low- and lower-moderate-income households found that only 25% had heard of the Emergency Broadband Benefit. One reason, he said, is that the government provided no funding to publicize the program and reach out to prospective users.
Internet service providers say they’re promoting the new subsidies on their websites and through social media. People who have little or no access to the internet, however, aren’t likely to see those messages.
If you would like a broadband connection but can’t afford one, here’s how to apply for the Emergency Broadband Benefit. If you already have broadband but know someone who doesn’t, pass this information along. Better yet, help them fill out the application.