• July 6, 2021

The Emergency Broadband Benefit Program Bridges the Digital Divide – For Now

Sarah Knapp
  • by Sarah Knapp

The COVID-19 pandemic brought longstanding issues around equity and access in education into sharp relief. Accessing technology such as the Internet – which has been a persistent struggle for millions of Americans for years – worsened in the pandemic. It expanded the digital divide and exacerbated the lack of equitable access to education.

On June 29, several members of the Propeller team attended a webinar hosted by New America’s Higher Education Program and Open Technology Institute on the importance of reliable Internet access for students across the country. 

Many of us take our access to the Internet for granted. The reality is that students and families across the country have had to make tough decisions due to lack of reliable and affordable broadband. The Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) is a new $3.2 billion dollar temporary federal program that aims to address the access divide.

The EBB provides a $50 monthly discount on Internet service ($75 on Tribal lands) and a one-time discount, per household, of up to $100 for a laptop, desktop or tablet to qualifying low-income households. Those who are eligible include Pell Grant recipients, free and reduced-price school lunch program recipients, people who experienced a substantial loss of income after February 29, 2020, and others.

According to the Universal Service Administrative Co., as of June 27, more than 3 million households have enrolled in the EBB program since its launch on May 12, 2021. The program saw more than 1 million enrolled households in just the first week. The need for reliable, affordable broadband is clear. But what happens when the EBB program ends? 

Higher education thought leaders across the nation have shared stories of how the pandemic and loss of typical on-campus resources impacted many students and families. The rapid closure of colleges and universities required leadership to make quick decisions and band-aid solutions for access to reliable devices and Internet service. 

College campuses across the country provided free wifi in campus parking lots. Colleges purchased and distributed thousands of devices to students. Faculty were forced to change their curriculum to meet the needs of virtual learning. 

In last week’s webinar, panelists dove into the current state of access to broadband, the EBB program, and future solutions. Below are some of the insights that were shared during the discussion:

  • Eduard Bartholme, Associate Bureau Chief of Consumer and Governmental Affairs for the FCC, explained that the EBB will end when funds run out or six months after the determined end of the pandemic. Providers are required to notify participants when full/partial discounts are set to run out. Additionally, households will need to opt in to continue to receive service to avoid bill-shock or potential debt to providers. 
  • Diné College President Dr. Charles “Monty” Roessel shared that after surveying students on whether or not they had access to Internet, it was revealed that “access” to one student meant driving 15 minutes, climbing a hill, and finding Internet on their phone. He also shared stories of entire families driving to campus parking lots to access free Internet and participate in virtual schooling. 
  • Carmen Lidz, Vice-Chancellor and Chief Information Officer for the LA Community College District, reported that approximately 80% of students had Internet access and 76% of students had access to computers, leaving large portions of students without Internet or devices. 
  • Savannah Steiger, a student and parent in rural Maine, had to drive to campus to sit in the parking lot or plan nap times for her children around library trips. Steiger, who serves as a Parent Advisor with Ascend at the Aspen Institute, explained that the college gave students hotspots, which worked for her but were “hit or miss” for some of her friends. 

The webinar panelists were asked to speculate on potential solutions for when the EBB program runs out of funds. Lidz and Roessel agreed that widespread policy change is required. They discussed meeting students where they are by utilizing social media, student outreach groups, and student champions of funneling information. Steiger emphasized the need for colleges to continuously check in with students regarding their needs. 

“Providing equitable access to technology is at the core of what we do at Propeller,” said Propeller’s Chief Executive Officer Greg M. Smith. “We know that access to technology – particularly the Internet – enhances student outcomes. The federal EBB program is a step in the right direction; however, the relief it offers to students and families is temporary. We all need to do our part to spread awareness about the importance of affordable Internet access and come together to create permanent solutions to close the digital divide.”

For a full recording of the webinar hosted by New America’s Higher Education Program and Open Technology Institute, please see below.

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