Fast, affordable Internet access for all.
Advantages and Potential Pitfalls of the Emergency Broadband Benefit - Episode 454 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast
One component of the recently passed Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 was the Emergency Broadband Benefit, a $3.2 billion program designed to get families connected to available service that they otherwise might not be able to afford. The program provides a subsidy of up to $50/month (or $75 on tribal lands) for broadband service as well as up to $100 for a device (with a household contribution) for as long as the money lasts.
On this episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast, Christopher is joined by Travis Carter (CEO of USI Fiber), Angela Siefer (executive director of National Digital Inclusion Alliance) and Olivia Wein (attorney with the National Consumer Law Center) to talk about how the Emergency Broadband Benefit will work and what their expectations are. They discuss who will be able to take advantage of the program and try to predict some of the challenges for the people who need it and the small ISPs that would like to participate.
Finally, the group weighs in with how providers can forge partnerships with groups like PCs for People to get hardware into homes, the need for digital navigators to help community members navigate the process of getting and staying online, and the long-term prospects for renewal of the program.
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Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.
Travis Carter: In all the years I've been doing this, this is the very first that I've ever seen that I think really has a chance to make a difference. So whoever came up with this, kudos.
Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: Welcome to episode 454 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. This is Ry Marcattilio-McCracken here at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. One component of the recently passed consolidated appropriations act of 2021 was the Emergency Broadband Benefit; a $3.2 billion program designed to get families connected to available service that they otherwise might not be able to afford. The program provides a subsidy of up to $50 a month or 75 on tribal lands for broadband service, as well as up to $100 for a device with a household contribution for as long as the money lasts.
Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: Christopher is joined by Travis Carter, USI fiber, Angela Siefer from the National Digital Inclusion Alliance and Olivia Wein from the National Consumer Law Center to talk about how the Emergency Broadband Benefit will work and what their expectations are. They discuss who will be able to take advantage of the program and try to predict some of the challenges we might see both for the people who need it and the small ISPs that would like to participate. Finally, the group weighs in with how providers can forge partnerships with groups like PCs for People to get hardware into homes, the need for digital navigators to help community members navigate the process of getting and staying online and the longterm prospects for renewal of the program. Now here's Christopher talking with Travis, Angela and Olivia.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Christopher Mitchell at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Saint Paul, Minnesota. I'm very excited to be talking today about the Emergency Broadband Benefit program with people that have different angles on it. This is an elephant and we have people that are touching different parts of the elephant to describe what it looks like and how we can have a better elephant at the end. Angela Siefer who is back again after not being scared off the first time.
Christopher Mitchell: Angela is the director of executives at the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. Welcome.
Angela Siefer: Thank you, Chris. Excited to be here.
Christopher Mitchell: And we also have Olivia Wein. Is it Wein or Wayne? I should've asked this five minutes ago.
Olivia Wein: Wine, like the beverage.
Christopher Mitchell: Wine, like the beverage. Olivia Wein, who is an attorney at National Consumer Law Center, someone who's been around longer than the people that you think have been in this space for a long time. So welcome to the show, Olivia.
Olivia Wein: Thank you.
Christopher Mitchell: And we also have Travis Carter who's filling in at the last minute. Travis is the chief of executives officers at USI Fiber.
Travis Carter: Thank you, Chris. And welcome back yourself.
Christopher Mitchell: And congratulations on an early construction season in Minnesota. What a wonderful [crosstalk 00:03:05]-
Travis Carter: The weather has been nice here. The weather has been nice, so we're digging in the ground as we speak, which is very unusual.
Christopher Mitchell: The subject is the Emergency Broadband Benefit, which is going to be launching soon and represents a historic change in broadband policy in that this is the first time the federal government is really putting a lot of money into low-income broadband access. It's in some ways the first time it's really trying to deal with this issue in more urban areas, as opposed to a focus on rural areas. And for people who are interested in the law, it's also a major appropriation rather than using the more typical universal service fund mechanism that we've used before. So there's a bunch of firsts. What of these recent historic broadband pieces of legislation that have moved through congress, come into law, what's giving you hope? What are you really enthusiastic about right now? So let me start with you, Olivia.
Olivia Wein: I would say that it's this notion that a robust broadband benefit. For the longest time, our goal here is we don't have a two tiered system for the poor and those that can afford broadband. And I think that this Emergency Broadband Benefit is an opportunity to build out, as temporary as it is, this robust broadband benefit.
Christopher Mitchell: And let's come back to that two tiered. I don't want to lose track of that. Let's talk about how it's not two-tiered and why that's important. And in a few minutes, Angela, 30 seconds. Yeah, the 30 second question.
Angela Siefer: It's all gives me hope, Chris. The fact that we have this Emergency Broadband Benefit, the fact that at the local level folks are using stimulus money, they use CARES Act money, they're likely to use American Rescue Plan money to address inequities in our digital spaces. Glory be, right? We're finally on our way.
Christopher Mitchell: And just a follow on question. Are you enjoying the hallucinations that come without sleeping? Angela's one of the busiest people in this space.
Angela Siefer: Well, my spouse and my family, they might disagree.
Christopher Mitchell: Travis, are you filled with hope or are you filled with angst as you try to navigate a new federal program?
Travis Carter: Well, the exciting news for us being an urban provider, it's just this is one of the very few programs that I'm aware of that we actually qualify for. So we are hopping on board and trying to understand the ins and outs of how these programs are going to work, and hopefully we can shed some light on that because there is a little bit of confusion on how we're going to execute this project. But hopefully at the end of this, we'll be a little bit more enlightened.
Christopher Mitchell: I am enthusiastic about how there is so much opportunity now. There is so much money from the American Rescue Plan and other recent laws that have passed that have very few qualifications attached to them that local governments can use creatively. And I'm really resolving to try to focus on the good creative uses rather than the bad creative uses that we will inevitably see. And I will just point out that, for instance, I don't think I would have been, I definitely would not have been as enthusiastic about Alabama's program in which they created this broadband subsidy, and they really implemented it in a flexible way that made a lot of sense.
Christopher Mitchell: And I probably wouldn't have selected that if I was in charge of all these programs, but they really made it work. So there's a lot of value in this money being able to be used creatively. So it's exciting. Now, let's maybe start with a couple of basic facts. So, Olivia, let me ask you to help me out with this first, because I think you, as a trained and practicing lawyer, have to deal with facts more than the rest of us. We're talking about, is it $3.1 billion for the Emergency Broadband Benefit in the initial allocation?
Olivia Wein: 3.2.
Christopher Mitchell: And then there's another amount that has been added to that as well, right?
Olivia Wein: There are legislative proposals to add an additional six billion to this benefit because there's a strong concern that the demand will be so great that this money will flow fairly quickly out the door.
Christopher Mitchell: Okay. Now, tell us, what's like a thumbnail sketch of how this program works?
Olivia Wein: And I should preface all of this, my apologies, with a disclosure, that I am on the board of the Universal Service Administrative Company, but I'm not authorized to speak on behalf of the board or on behalf of USAC. And I'm participating in this wonderful conversation solely as a staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center.
Christopher Mitchell: Yes. So if people are not familiar with USAC, it's an agency that basically makes the will of the FCC happen in many ways. And you are involved with that, but none of your opinions at all represent them or your position on their board.
Olivia Wein: Correct. Correct. And some of what I'm about to say or, and I don't know the questions you're about to ask me. Maybe my personal reaction versus National Consumer Law Center's position, but I'll let you know when we get there. But to scroll back, this exciting program will be for consumers and up to $50 a month benefit for broadband service. And if you live on tribal lands, it's up to $75 a month, so it's quite substantial. And depending on the provider's choice, it could include an up to $100, benefit for a connected device, laptop, desktop or tablet.
Christopher Mitchell: And I'm going to let you slide because I deeply respect the fact that you know much more about all this stuff than I do. I just hate the term consumers. And I know that you deal with actual consumers in other aspects of your work. When it comes to broadband, I always call them subscribers.
Olivia Wein: [crosstalk 00:09:05] organization. What's your preference, customer?
Christopher Mitchell: Customer's great. Subscriber's great. If you see me shutter a little bit, that's why. I've steadfastly refused the idea that the internet is for consumers. It is for producers, makers, participants. The Internet is not something that we can allow to turn into cable television. So, that's why I think it's important. But I've now derailed us on one of my hobby horses. I'm not going to, I swear to myself, I'm not going to get into how it's important to capitalize Internet. I'm just going to turn to Angela and I'm going to ask, how does the [EBB 00:09:42] compare to other efforts, and what's different about EBB from other things we've seen to try to connect low-income folks?
Angela Siefer: So from the federal government, we have Lifeline. So lifeline is our officially communication subsidy that is phone and broadband. In reality, folks use it for a mobile phone with a little bit of data. Everybody who's listening is going to be like a little bit of data isn't really broadband. No. A little bit of data, it's not broadband. So we have Lifeline, but think of it more like a phone subsidy, because in reality that's how it ends up playing out.
Angela Siefer: And then when the pandemic hit, we had schools, we had community-based organizations, we had community institutions purchasing broadband for folks for in-home use. That was brand new. We had, prior to the pandemic, there was a smattering of those, right? Also prior to the pandemic was just a smattering of what we've been calling [gap 00:10:38] networks. The idea that a community would build a network to address affordability for a low income neighborhood. Now we're seeing a lot more of those too. So, we're seeing-
Christopher Mitchell: And that's often a Wi-Fi network that's available often in the streets, but may not penetrate inside the homes [crosstalk 00:10:53].
Angela Siefer: No, [crosstalk 00:10:54], I'm talking about home service. I really have little interest in street service. I really want to focus in on home service. So gap networks, we think of them as places where the internet does get into the home and it's a low cost or it's free and it's being done often by a school district, but also sometimes a community institution, a community-based provider. But anyhow, I'm off track again. I think I learned that from Chris. So-
Christopher Mitchell: That's what keeps it interesting.
Angela Siefer: That's right. In terms of what was already out there, Lifeline, right, where we say kind of, and then it was these community efforts that mostly popped up during the pandemic, but we didn't really have any pot of money that was helping address affordability by really paying for people's internet service. That's what EBB is.
Olivia Wein: There's an overlap [inaudible 00:11:43] product that was out there pre-pandemic, and those were the low cost options from some of the bigger providers. But oftentimes, they had like a waiting period, or if you owed, if you had a past debt with that company, you were ineligible. And so one of the things that's different about the way the Emergency Broadband Benefit program is structured is there's no waiting period, [inaudible 00:12:08] with a company is not a barrier and there are no early termination fees. So those customer protections are built right in.
Christopher Mitchell: I noticed, and I appreciate it. The program that I like to note from Comcast Internet Essentials has flaws, and many people attack it for its flaws, but it also was, I think, stands alone as being an effective, good program that did more than all of the other big cable and telephone companies combined to connect low-income folks. So I just, I like to put that point out there in part because it's just an opportunity for me to say, I'm not always criticizing Comcast. How do you qualify for this, Olivia? And, Travis, I'm not going to forget about you for the whole show. We're going to talk about ISPs in a second.
Travis Carter: I'm learning.
Olivia Wein: Well, there's the traditional... If you are eligible for Lifeline or participating in Lifeline. So that eligibility criteria, that's participation in Medicaid, SNAP, supplemental security income, HUD, assisted housing, low-income veterans pension program. And then there's a tribal subset of programs, for the enhanced tribal Lifeline program. So in addition to those traditional Lifeline... And you can get into income eligibility, just documenting your income is at or below 135% of poverty. And in addition, the Emergency Broadband Benefit added participation in the Pell Grant Program to help low-income college students take advantage of this program. Participation in the free and reduced school lunch program, documentation of a severe loss of income due to COVID. So those are additional ways that households can qualify for the Emergency Broadband Benefit program.
Christopher Mitchell: And one of the things about that is that the entire household qualifies, and even if only one member of the household fits into one of those categories, if all of the members of the household fit into the categories, they still qualify for one subsidy.
Olivia Wein: It is one per household. The connected device is also one per household,
Christopher Mitchell: And they have to affirmatively opt in, right? There's no opportunity for an ISP like mass input people, I believe.
Olivia Wein: Yes. The individual household needs to go through a... There's a duplicates check done to make sure that you're not doing, applying for more than one benefit. But in terms of affirmative action on behalf of the customer, there's a two-step process that we know of right now in the design of this program. Customers will need to verify that they're eligible. They can do that by going straight to the national verifier or-
Christopher Mitchell: Which is online.
Olivia Wein: Which is online, but it's paper too. There's a paper process, or you could go in through a provider of your choice; get into this program, so that you could determine your eligibility that way because providers that have their own eligibility screening process, for example, going back to like a Comcast type of product. This existed before Emergency Broadband Benefit. They have their own screening criteria. So in theory, this is designed, so that Comcast would be able to say, I want to use that criteria because I want to participate. And I want to participate and I want to use my own verification, or they could say, I want to participate, and I want to use the national verifier process. Step one for the customer is eligibility determination. Step two is affirmative action on the customer's part to pick which provider and service that they would like for this EBB benefit.
Christopher Mitchell: Now we're going to skip to what it's like on the ISP side, and then we're going to come back to really focus on what it'll take to make this successful, to make sure that people know about it and be able to use it effectively. So Travis, tell us a little bit about what your experience has been in signing up for this.
Travis Carter: Sure. The first step was signing up with the FCC, and that was relatively straightforward. I think that took a couple days to get the approval. And then we signed up with USAC to be a provider. And there was some information you had to provide, all made sense, like you're not a brand new provider, you've actually been providing services, et cetera, et cetera. So we're waiting for authorization on that front
Christopher Mitchell: To nail that down, I think for folks that are interested, you had to have documented that you were a provider before December 1st of last year, which you could do with other federal forms you've proven, you've demonstrated. And then to get automatically qualified, I think you also had to offer a low-income program before April of 2020, and then you would be automatically qualified. And I suspect, Travis, you didn't have an officially documented low-income program, so you have to be vetted.
Travis Carter: So yeah, there's some process happening behind the curtain that I assume were some phased through right now. We're under the assumption that we'll navigate through that. And then the question becomes, when does it start? So that's a little bit unclear. So what we've decided to do is start in April. And regardless of if the program's going or not because there's going to be an onboarding process, and it's going to take some time to get people educated that this exists, that they may qualify for it. And then we're going to go ahead. And if it takes three months or five months for the program to start, we're just going to provide the free service until the actual program starts.
Travis Carter: And then if the program runs because the other variable is if the program runs for, let's just say, conversations at six months, then what we're going to do is we're going to double that on the backend under the assumption that there may be, if this program's successful, that there may be another tranche of money allocated to it. So what I don't want to do is onboard people, off blow them, try to grab them again, because... where most of my expense is on onboarding them and getting them going. So if we have three months that will cover until the program starts, again, I'm just guessing, six months of program, then another six months on us. This could be a year, a year and a half benefit and then... Or even longer, if there's additional allocation from the government.
Angela Siefer: And I give big kudos to Travis for doing that.
Travis Carter: Yeah, otherwise I'm worried that it'll start and it'll just take so long to get it going, that it may end up being marginally successful in the beginning. I'd rather just get the ball rolling now and see how we do
Christopher Mitchell: Now, does that change Travis? In your calculation, are you expecting more of new customers to come on that use EBB, or do you think a sizeable number of your existing customers would transition to using EBB if they're eligible?
Travis Carter: My guess is we'll have a relative, a small percentage of our current customers probably take advantage of it. What I'm really hoping for is to attract new people, that the financial piece has been the hurdle to get them activated. And I give kudos to whoever wrote the program. $50 really helps, get some going. And so what we're going to provide is gigabit service up and down. And then the way we were envisioning doing it is we will send them a bill, but it'll say $50 service fee, and then it'll say a $50 EBB credit on the [crosstalk 00:20:02].
Christopher Mitchell: Oh, no, I take that back. So your [$49.99 00:20:07] price point is your intro price point.
Travis Carter: Yeah, we're just [crosstalk 00:20:10]. Yeah, we're just going to go to the top speed as far as EBB because there not... If this program works the way I'm expecting it, there's not going to be a ton of costs for us. We're going to send in a monthly allocation of subscribers we have. I assume to this USAC organization and hopefully that gets vetted and we get a check back. So, it's almost toss. I view it like as a bulk program where we will do with like a bulk MDU and we give higher service for a reduced rate.
Angela Siefer: Travis, what do you charge now for that gigabit service?
Travis Carter: $70.
Angela Siefer: So you are then cutting it by $20 and getting the 50.
Travis Carter: Yeah. Yeah, my hope is when we give people proper broadband, my hope is to kind of get them addicted to it and use it because what I really would love for this to be is, let's say four or five, 10 years from now, the kids that were using this when they were younger and got an online lifestyle going turn into customers for us when they get into the workforce. That's the selfish side of me, or maybe not so selfish. But so if we can get them online and give them a proper service, the part we're still dabbling with is, do we give them a router too? And so we're working that through. My thought is, is we'll go ahead and provide a router. I don't know if that qualifies for this $100 program or not. [crosstalk 00:21:37]. Okay. Okay.
Angela Siefer: Do you want an answer?
Travis Carter: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. No, I'd love an answer. It's hard to figure this all out.
Angela Siefer: Yeah, right. Yeah, no, I spend a lot of time reading [inaudible 00:21:46] as I'm sure Olivia did too. So it doesn't-
Christopher Mitchell: I didn't. [inaudible 00:21:50].
Angela Siefer: You don't need to Chris, you have Olivia and I. So, no, it doesn't count for the device reimbursement, but it does count... So when a traditional customer comes in, do you charge them upfront for the router on their first bill, or do you divide that cost amongst their monthly? How do you usually do that??
Travis Carter: Yeah. So we will either sell them the router at our cost, or we will charge them like an $8 a month rental if they choose, where we will manage their wifi experience for them.
Angela Siefer: Okay.
Travis Carter: And then in the perpetuity.
Angela Siefer: Right. So that very first bill then, that first month, if you're tacking the router on there, I assume the router's more than $20?
Travis Carter: Yup. Yup.
Angela Siefer: Okay. So then, so they still only get the $50 and then you would either charge them for the router or they would get it. If they were purchasing a service from you that was less than $50, then some portion of the router costs could've been included in that 50, but you're already a 50, so.
Travis Carter: Yeah, so I guess, again, trying to provide the ideal experience, we should give them a router.
Angela Siefer: I agree. Yeah.
Christopher Mitchell: What is the alternative, if they do not get a router?
Travis Carter: They can plug in to the ethernet check. I just think it's a poor experience. So, okay. So I'm learning here. So now what we're going to do is we'll give them the router and we'll give them the service for $50 a month. And then I think we have our best chance of success.
Angela Siefer: I think that's a solid strategy, Travis.
Christopher Mitchell: [crosstalk 00:23:22] ask a question?
Angela Siefer: No, you may not. Look, I'm the guest.
Christopher Mitchell: No, I was asking if Olivia wanted to ask a question. I would just talk over people myself.
Angela Siefer: I just want to give Travis the huge kudos that I think that's awesome.
Christopher Mitchell: Yes. So if an ISP did not have Travis's vision for this, it's worth noting that they would not be able to craft a program that would, for instance, be $50 a month and be lower than the tiers they had been offering before December 1st. So ISPs, I believe, can only use the EBB toward tiers that they've had before, or if they improve upon those tiers as Travis has, but they could not, for instance, craft a new slower program that would be EBB eligible. Olivia, USAC and the FCC have considered data caps as well, I believe, right? Can you speak to that at all? Because I know that your expression suggests that you would not like to speak to that because it's probably a bit esoteric compared to all these other things, but I believe the FCC is collecting data on that.
Olivia Wein: In the initial forms, that's one of the questions, right, Travis, that you were asked to fill out maybe in the USAC [inaudible 00:24:32]?
Travis Carter: I actually didn't fill it out, so I'm not... I can ask though.
Christopher Mitchell: [crosstalk 00:24:38].
Olivia Wein: I have it right here. It's the USAC form that... This is the phase two. So providers have a two-step process; some of them, unless they're already eligible telecommunications carriers, then they just have a one-step process. But all participants must apply to USAC. They must file with USAC. And in the USAC filing under service offerings, you need to attach documentation detailing each service offering for which your company plans to seek reimbursement through the EBB, and this includes all of the following details. Bullet number one is speed and data caps. So yes, it is being collected upfront.
Angela Siefer: So this EBB can be used on wireline or wireless service. And we know most wireless services have data caps. It just has to be a particular plan that was offered on December 1st at that data cap, and they can't reduce the data cap. But also it's important to note that this offer is not eligible on per gig services, right? It has to be like very clear about what you're getting.
Travis Carter: Yeah.
Christopher Mitchell: And then we have a question, whether ISPs are required to provide 25 megabits down, three megabits up the broadband definition?
Olivia Wein: Nope.
Christopher Mitchell: And is that a good idea? Go ahead, Olivia.
Olivia Wein: It was one of those balancing considerations because this is an emergency program that we need to stand up as quick as we can to get relief to customers as fast as we can. And we want to encourage as many providers to enroll. And at this point, now there's like a rolling process. So if you haven't applied and you are thinking about it, we strongly hope that you apply, speaking as a low-income consumer advocate.
Christopher Mitchell: Now, if you were in a rural area and you did not have 25/3 available to you, I think you would be deeply disappointed if you could not get a subsidy merely because you did not have the infrastructure available, and I suspect that's why they wrote the rule that way.
Angela Siefer: They wrote it that way for what you just described, Chris, but also in order to encourage more providers to participate. And then that there could be a lot of possibilities, choices for the consumer, or the customer, to choose from. Yes, we all want to make sure that we keep raising the bar as to what we think is real, but we also don't want to keep rural areas that have less than that to participate. And if we want more providers to participate, we need to make it as appealing to them as possible.
Christopher Mitchell: If I was to create Chris Mitchell fly by night wireless in Minneapolis to go head to head with Travis and offer the EBB, people would have a choice and hopefully they would do their homework and go with Travis for that offer rather than me.
Olivia Wein: But you'd have to have been in business, right?
Christopher Mitchell: Right, if I was to do that, I would have such foresight, I would've done it a while ago.
Olivia Wein: A while ago. Yeah.
Christopher Mitchell: Thank you for the flag on that. Then one of the things, [crosstalk 00:27:56]-
Travis Carter: Chris, can we touch on this hundred dollar credit a little bit, what that qualifies for and what it doesn't because that's a component that might be interesting to build into the program.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. Olivia, do you want to jump on that?
Olivia Wein: It is. Providers can offer a connected device defined as a laptop, desktop or tablet. There's also gotta be this part too, where customers are asked to pay between $10 and $50 for that connected device. So it cannot be offered for free, but it can be offered to the customer for as low as $10 or [crosstalk 00:28:34].
Christopher Mitchell: But it cannot be a mobile phone.
Olivia Wein: It cannot be a mobile phone.
Angela Siefer: So what that would look like for you, Travis, would be you partnering with a provider or a refurbisher or a vendor of new machines.
Christopher Mitchell: [inaudible 00:28:48].
Angela Siefer: Exactly, right because they're around the corner from you. And working out a deal with them so that your customers, participants of EBB for the service then also get an option to purchase a very low cost computer. If they could come in at that anywhere between the 10 and 50 out of their pocket and the government's throwing in a hundred and we know a refurbisher like PCs for People already has reasonable prices.
Travis Carter: Are we able to throw in money into this too? Or does the... So if the big G government threw in a hundred, we throw in a hundred. And then what you're saying is that the individual has to throw in at least 10?
Angela Siefer: Yes.
Olivia Wein: That's correct.
Travis Carter: So $210, we have to play with, and they can be a... basically something running a proper operating system, a laptop or a computer.
Angela Siefer: A camera. It needs to have a camera. It needs to be a video capable. That's why they said no mobile phones. And it can't be the cheapest thing out there, that it's 10 years old and doesn't have a camera on it. So that they set those standards to make sure thinking about distance learning and remote work.
Travis Carter: No. What is your guys opinion of that? Because I've been a real fan of desktop computers, and it seems like these refurbishers have a lot of them. But it seems like now you have something that can be in the home. There's a fixed piece of device and it has a proper ethernet cord you can plug in. So it just, I don't know, is there any opinion out there of what is the right thing to put in people's hands?
Angela Siefer: So PCs for People and other refurbishers will tell you, nobody wants the desktops.
Travis Carter: Exactly, yeah.
Angela Siefer: People want laptops, right? It's just more convenient. I wouldn't go buy a desktop.
Christopher Mitchell: And I don't want to stereotype too broadly because there's all manner of different people who would qualify and need this help, but a lot of this population is somewhat mobile. And if you are moving around a bit, it can be pretty much of a hassle. And imagine not everyone has a desk in their house already, so you might be working off the couch or something. There's just a variety of reasons why [crosstalk 00:30:57].
Travis Carter: Okay. All right. So laptops, and I'm assuming ones that run Windows or a Mac, not these Chromebooks, right? Because they can't run anything other than-
Angela Siefer: Yeah, I would head towards the more functional. And then the reason for the tablets, Travis, is often for our older adults. So for an older adult where digital literacy is more of a struggle, they might prefer a tablet for the ease of use. Not all older adults, but some.
Travis Carter: Okay. Okay. So a tablet might actually be the preferred route then, huh?
Angela Siefer: For some households; for a household where there's parents and kids, and we're thinking longterm. Let's take the example where we're all like, everybody should learn to code. Yeah, we'll try it on, on our crappy computer.
Travis Carter: Yeah, exactly. Then, okay, so sorry, not to monopolize the conversation, but what is the consideration for tech support and e-learning and things like that? Because just giving somebody that's not very technically savvy a computer and an internet connection for 10 bucks, who answers the thousands of questions that come in?
Christopher Mitchell: There should be a national organization that would deal with some kind of digital inclusion that would be an Alliance of local folks that were trying to solve these problems.
Angela Siefer: Okay. I swear to you, I did not Travis up with that question?
Travis Carter: No, I'm just curious, because that, when you look it from a cost model, that's where the real expense is for a company like ours.
Angela Siefer: Yeah. This is why we exist, Travis. This is why NDIA is here because there's organizations across the country that have been doing that now for years, but they pretty much were operating underneath the radar, because nobody was paying attention to digital equity issues.
Christopher Mitchell: They're the ones that try to get you roped into contracts over the years to provide the funding. That's where the, in dealing with the city of Minneapolis and things like that, they're trying to funnel money to groups like that. In Minneapolis, I can't tell you who those actual individuals are right now, but I know that there's several that are trying to do this. And I feel like they feel like they have not had the tools to succeed historically.
Angela Siefer: You're actually in Minneapolis. You have a whole AmeriCorps program that provides that kind of-
Christopher Mitchell: CTEP
Angela Siefer: Yeah, CTEP provides that digital literacy support to multiple, I think they're 12 or 15 AmeriCorps members, providing that digital literacy support to community-based organizations. And I think this was a point Chris was going to get to in our conversation anyhow, which is that EBB alone isn't going to solve it. And so we have to have that hands-on support, and that's the part that's not really covered in this money. Right, so that 350 billion for local and state governments, that's where I think we might see some of what you're describing, Travis, where that hands-on, who has the tech support, who can provide digital navigation. Can we pay for some of that with that 350 billion?
Travis Carter: Okay. So just imagine you're just a little ISP out here providing internet, how in the world do you navigate all these government programs and paperwork and put this all together? I'm just talking for the however many of us that are out there, it's a big job, while you're also trying to hook up your thousands of customers every month that want service. So I-
Christopher Mitchell: I want to take a shot at that, and then I want to ask Olivia, what she thinks about that too, because Olivia thinks about these issues and can bring experience from other actual consumer oriented programs to encourage, to help deal with these issues that we've wrestled with over many decades. I would say that one thing is, is that Travis, you shouldn't be solving this; to the extent that we are asking independent Internet service providers to be solving the digital divide, we will fail. We do not ask Cargill or Archer-Daniels-Midland to solve hunger worldwide, right? I'm not sending them indignant letters being like, why is there a malnutrition in the United States?
Christopher Mitchell: That would be crazy if I did that. We recognize that just because they are good at a specific type of food provisioning or being involved in a food chain, that they don't necessarily solve the problem. And I think this idea that Comcast, AT&T or USI Fiber should be the ones to solve the problem is misplaced. And I would tell you that I think the city of Minneapolis needs to step up and take some more responsibility on that sort of thing. I think the libraries would love to if they had the budget to be able to help. But Olivia, how do you respond to that?
Olivia Wein: I think I see the world the way you do.
Christopher Mitchell: And that’s why you're on the show.
Olivia Wein: There are roles. And I do think that we do need to think of this though, comprehensively, as we walk in, right? Originally back in the day, many of us remember when folks would say broadband investment, people always thought, oh, that's buildout. That's all that is. But then we would say, if you build it, can they afford it? Affordability is a piece of this puzzle, but it's also, if you build it and they can afford it, can they use it? The skills are, this is the three legged stool. We will not close the broadband digital divide with just any one leg or any two legs of the stool. But there isn't a current program that takes care of everything in one fell swoop. So it is aligning the pieces. And that's the challenge.
Christopher Mitchell: I do want to make sure that we have plenty of time. So I'm going to say is just we can come back to any questions that we still have on that. But Angela, what does it take to make sure this is successful? I feel like for a lot of us, there's this belief of like, all right, well, if the ISPs know what they're doing, and if there's a pretty clear process for people, then hey, Presto, it'll work. But I feel like you have spent a lot of time in the comments to the FCC. I think Olivia you have as well, concerned that the FCC, for instance, has not learned the lessons of Alabama with their program and just all the other history that is difficult to reach out to people, educate them and motivate them to take advantage of these sorts of programs.
Angela Siefer: The digital inclusion programs at NDIA represent. So we represent over 500 digital inclusion programs inside community anchor institutions, libraries, housing authorities, local governments all across the country. And they have learned from doing this work over the years, and in particular during the pandemic, when all of a sudden there was CARES Act money to pay for connectivity, right. That was really the first time that folks were like, hey, there's a pot of money and we could use it to pay for somebody's connectivity. And that happened. And then, so we had these big projects where they're buying hundreds of accounts and hotspots are the best example of this. Buying a hotspot, dropping it off at a home, and it doesn't get turned on. And then schools in particular are like, how come student whomever didn't turn on their hotspot?
Angela Siefer: And it becomes this big complex issue that we know part of it is the skills, part of it is that support level, but also you got to mix in privacy and safety. There's all kinds of reasons somebody wouldn't turn on a machine that's provided by a government organization. Right? So I think what we know is that we have to have that community-based trusted support and there's data out there that shows this. There was a great article, an academic article by Lloyd Levine, who had partnered with CETF, California Emerging Technology Fund, and looked at different ways to help people sign up. And he was like, oh, that one didn't work. That one didn't work. It was the first academic article where I'd read the whole thing front to back. And I was fascinated because he really went through, oh, nope, tried that. Nope, tried this. And so really what he comes down to at the end is it needs to be a community-based trusted entity that's doing it. And even then, you're not going to get everybody to sign up.
Christopher Mitchell: And Travis, you've had experience with this, and I want to come back to that in a second, but first ask if Olivia has anything to add on to that.
Olivia Wein: Absolutely. The role of the trusted intermediary is critical in even the basic how do you do the outreach in education? How do you help people enroll in this program? Really that's going to be critical. And I see it more like, in a relay race with a baton handoff, right? So materials developed by the federal communication commission by the universal service administrative company, that are the rough materials, that list providers in the state what services they're offering, things that then groups in Angela's network can take and shape. These are the trusted intermediaries, and explain, like this is how you enroll.
Olivia Wein: These are your choices. This is how this program works. That there's roles for everybody and lanes, but at a certain point, there needs to be that handoff to the trusted intermediary to really bring it home. But the intermediary is going to need those plug-in play materials, because that's information housed higher up in, Travis, the information that you're putting into these applications, some of that's going to be what informs which States and what services so the customer options make sense, right? You don't want the nationwide picture. You need something more tailored.
Travis Carter: Yeah. Yup.
Christopher Mitchell: I was just remembering a story that Travis had told me about a person who had called up and he really wanted to get signed up immediately. I think it was after the pandemic had really kicked in, and you had looked back and found that you'd sent him hundreds of pieces of mail, and then he was indignant that you couldn't sign him up the day that he was finally ready for it. And I think it's relevant here because someone is going to have to make sure people understand about this, and you are not in a position to put all of your, even if you put your entire marketing heft behind it, the glorious fiber USI Fiber marketing machine, I don't know that you would make a dent, in terms of being effective to spread the word about this.
Travis Carter: Well, no, and that, we're going to have to partner with someone like PCs for people, and, well, you and I know we have tried everything we can think of. We've given free internet away before we've tried to get people to sign up and I can't put my finger on why we get such low adoption. We know the buildings that we're in that would qualify for this program, but we can't get anyone to sign up even for free. So I'm wondering if the angle is maybe they don't have technology or they don't know who to talk to, to get educated on technology.
Travis Carter: Maybe it's not so much an access issue as, I don't know, we just have never been able to put, you and I have talked over dinner about this Chris, before about how we can try. And I think so far we have two people that are on the program out of all of Minneapolis that we've tried to get. And we've given them access for free, in multiple buildings, and we just do not get very much adoption at all.
Angela Siefer: So what it often comes down to Travis is partnering with that local organization. Internet service providers in general don't always have high ratings in terms of customer service, not talking about you specifically, but how folks view someone that's representing in the ISP or even the materials that came from that internet service provider, but a community-based organization that's already doing something else in that community. They're the ones that run the food bank or they provide, they run the senior center, or they have the new resident services. Whatever they do something else, those are the folks you want to partner with because they're already trusted by the population you want to reach.
Travis Carter: And this might be a naive question on my part, but probably the question that resonates with people that are in my shoes across the country, who are these people? Where do we find them? I have no idea. Are they interested in technology or are they really interested in just the more sustainable pieces of life like housing and food and education? I don't know. I wouldn't even know where to start.
Angela Siefer: The first place to start is on NDIA’s website, digitalinclusion.org. You click on affiliates, you see a map and you see who, like for you really, it's the CTEP folks. It's those it's partnering with them to make sure that they know what you offer. That's not even you laying out any cash, right? That's just you educating folks who are already working in the community on this issue about what you have out there. And they're going to be like, oh, sweet.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, you should meet with them over lunch or dinner and buy them because they get paid very little.
Travis Carter: [crosstalk 00:44:13]. But to your point though, is that our role, or is that their role to be looking for people like us?
Angela Siefer: It is both because I can tell you in the past, some have tried and sometimes an internet service provider will be receptive and sometimes they won't. And it's also, the pandemic has changed things. The number of organizations addressing digital equity has just skyrocketed. Those organizations who you were just saying, they're like, no, that's not our job, right? Our job is to feed people. And that's how they viewed it prior to the pandemic, and then the pandemic hit. A good example are those that provide services to new residents. And so I live in Central Ohio. We have a large... Actually there's like a question, is who has a higher Somalian population? [inaudible 00:44:59] you guys.
Travis Carter: Yeah. Yup.
Christopher Mitchell: I know the answer.
Angela Siefer: So if an organization is providing services to help folks adjust to life in the US, providing housing, language services, all of that, they could pretty much been doing that in person. The pandemic hit and they're like, we can't do our jobs anymore. We can't meet the mission. And so then they started to figure out how to do digital inclusion, right? They had to do it or else they couldn't help the people they were intended to help. So now the number of folks who want to partner with you is way higher than it was before, but they don't know you're open to partnering.
Travis Carter: Fair enough.
Christopher Mitchell: So I want to bring this back to EBB as we go in. And now we have a question and that is how a person that might be, for instance, in a rural area, is there a place that they can look to find out what programs are available near them?
Olivia Wein: There will be. These tools are being built out now, and it's a stay tuned, definitely. NDIA has got a website with EBB resources, the federal communication has a landing page on broadband benefit. And that the late breaking announcements will be coming to that FCC website. So I encourage folks that are interested, especially if you play more of an intermediary role, like helping people find out more information, learn about programs, definitely register. But individual consumers, if you are able to track this and follow, register on that FCC website, because you will be first in line with late-breaking tools that are coming out, materials. And I think that there's going to be, if you're in that intermediary function, that navigator function, material's dedicated to you as well. And certainly for the providers, they've got their own series of information.
Angela Siefer: What Olivia is referring to is that you have an option of signing up as an outreach partner on that EBB site for the FCC. And so from there, what you get then is, okay, here's the latest, here's the materials, right? So not a lot's come through yet because it's still early days, but they have promised us that's the tool that they're going to use; good old fashioned email, to tell us what's happening.
Christopher Mitchell: A couple of details I wanted to make sure that we hit for internet service providers that have multiple territories. If they are offering in one spot, they got to offer it everywhere, is how I read the rules. I see a nod from Angela. It's not clear that open access networks, how they fit in, although I know that some are applying and trying to work through the process, but the FCC in the instructions that I read, I didn't read it cover to cover like certain other people on this call that are hoity toity. But the instructions did suggest that there needs to be a retail relationship with the subscriber?
Olivia Wein: Yes. Billing, customer service, service quality, that provider-customer relationship.
Angela Siefer: And it is the, you can't cherry pick. So I don't think that really applies to the open access networks, but I wish I had a conversation with the folks at utopia about that. It's really who is billing the customer, and what area are they serving?
Christopher Mitchell: Okay. And then I really want to make sure, we talked about it, but we didn't say it specifically. Olivia, just give us a quick wrap up on the two tiered and how this is different. We addressed it in terms of what Travis is offering, but how have things been in the past and why is it important that this is different?
Olivia Wein: Well, I think that the traditional Lifeline services program has been hampered by the 9.25 per month subsidy. That subsidy amount has been fixed for a while, and that's what's making it difficult, I believe.
Christopher Mitchell: And that provides the service that I would consider substandard from the sort of things that as a person that has a decent paying job and lives in a place where I'm paying for, what you think of as standard tiers of service. And yet for the first time, the government will be subsidizing a service that’s available generally rather than a special crippled service.
Olivia Wein: There are two things to keep in mind, moving forward. You can have a lifeline service and the EBB. It doesn't have to be with the same provider, but it could be. And if you are enrolled in Lifeline, then you are automatically eligible for EBB. So that is something to keep in mind.
Travis Carter: So do we have any sense, is the way the legislation written that when the fund is dried up, the program's over, is that how these work?
Olivia Wein: Yes, the program rules are going to try and stabilize the EBB participation role. So closer to, and the FCC and the universal service administrative company, they're going to be regularly reporting that spend out rate with perhaps some other additional information about the uptake, the number of participants in such, so that folks can get a handle of when we're close to that time. But the rules are set up so that you provider will get at least 50% of your reimbursement rate that final month. So in order to make that happen, they're going to lock who can enroll before then, maybe a month or so before... stabilize the EBB roll.
Olivia Wein: So at least that function will be stable going in as they calculate out the closing up. And this is going to be critical for that outreach and education, one, when people sign up for this, that they know this is a temporary program, that it will not last forever. But then as we get closer to that form of education of what's next, because customers cannot be automatically enrolled into the provider service. They have to affirmatively agree.
Christopher Mitchell: This is what I really wanted to jump into, because what Travis you're doing is interesting in that you would continue it without charging them, which I think is not contemplated by the FCC rules. They want to make sure that people have to affirmatively respond yes so that they keep getting service, which means, I think some number of ISPs are going to get irate calls from people saying, why is my service off?
Travis Carter: Can you imagine signing all these people up and then shutting them all off? That's a political nightmare. We'll be in the newspaper the next day, we shut off... So I wanted to ask, other programs, since I'm not familiar with this. By the way, this is completely fascinating. In prior programs, if they're wildly successful, does the government tend to continue them or not? Or is it more of a political exercise than a-
Christopher Mitchell: That’s what elections are for.
Travis Carter: Okay. Okay.
Olivia Wein: But to say that there are already vehicles out there that would put an additional $6 billion into the EBB as structured now, so.
Christopher Mitchell: The Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act, which is seems to be the language that the Democrats will be putting into the infrastructure bill, most likely, which includes the digital equity act, which Angela deserves a lot of credit with her team for working on, would put a lot more money into that. And it would double the amount of money that's put in already, which is important because we're not talking about 12 million eligible households here, right. We're talking about tens of millions, like 30, 40 million households, potentially 25% of the United States may be eligible for this, so that money could go quickly if people really subscribe to it.
Travis Carter: Well, that was my worry.
Christopher Mitchell: I think [crosstalk 00:53:10].
Travis Carter: Yep. So real quick, you get a bunch of people signed up. Do we have to shut them off? That's-
Angela Siefer: Right. So let me answer that question.
Travis Carter: Yeah. Yeah.
Angela Siefer: So when it's wrapping up, the providers need to say to those who have enrolled what their options are. So Travis, what you're going to be telling them is different from what most of the providers are going to be telling people, but then even at the end of where you decided to cover it yourself, then you still need to tell them something at that point. And so what I would encourage you then is offer them that discount offer that you've been wanting, that you've been talking about. Right? Okay, so the federal subsidy is ending. Our extra subsidy to you now is ending. So now you have the option of continuing at the $70 level, or you can take advantage of this discount offer. Here's the service that you [crosstalk 00:54:03] price.
Travis Carter: I just, again, I don't have an opinion either way. I just wonder if it's like political suicide, if you're wildly successful in this program and the program dries up and ultimately you got to collect something. This [crosstalk 00:54:17]. Yeah. [crosstalk 00:54:19].
Christopher Mitchell: This is where Olivia really lives because the point of the universal service fund, is that it was designed in a way that would not require ongoing appropriations from Congress. It is a fee that more or less ratchets up with demand and then provide service on an ongoing basis. And a challenge is that that fee having been levied on interstate communications, is far too small of a base for all the things we want to do with it. And nobody wants to deal with it because it's a talk about, they should be taxing my internet access, right? I should be paying an internet access tax that will help pay to make sure that everyone can be connected to it. But nobody wants to propose that because they're afraid I'll freak out and vote against their party if that comes up. Olivia am I more or less getting the dynamic there?
Olivia Wein: There are political challenges to contributions reform for the universal service. That is true. That is an understatement the way I said it. But to realize though, that efforts are afoot to provide more funding for this Emergency Broadband Benefit because, people have seen the value of tele-health. People have seen the reliance on internet access to even apply for benefits, right? Like unemployment, heating assistance, you name it. It's pretty critical. And the homework gap is very real. We've lost a lot of students. We just don't know where they are because of connectivity issues. And so this is not a problem that will disappear quickly. This program needs to run longer that's for sure. And we need to figure out a more permanent, sustainable way to get to this robust broadband benefit. This is almost like a... Yes. Some way. Right? We've got [crosstalk 00:56:21] different models here.
Christopher Mitchell: I was trying to jump in right at the end to be cute and say, and to subsidize a working market, not a broken market. Ideally because the subsidy at $50 a month is quite generous, but is overpaying relative to the cost of the technology and other things like there should be an effective subsidy that would deliver well for people without having to be that high and that costly, I think. Angela, I think you've had a lot of things to say, but have kept them bottled up.
Olivia Wein: But we have to say it's up to 50, right? And it is your standard rate set back in time, moving forward. You can improve on that offer, but you can't inflate your offering to get up to $50. So it's designed not to let that happen.
Christopher Mitchell: Angela?
Angela Siefer: No, I'm fine, actually. Probably my last throw it out there is that there's lots of information about EBB and this all this federal money. In fact, we have a blog post in draft form that's going out later today after Caitlin makes a [snaffy 00:57:25] little graphic for it. That is, what's the stimulus digital equity? There's nothing specifically that says stimulus digital equity, but there's money that can be used for digital equity in the stimulus money in multiple packages. So we've laid that out in one nice blog post that will go out later today. And there's lots of information about EBB and all of that on digitalinclusion.org.
Christopher Mitchell: Go ahead, Olivia, and then I'm going to give Travis one last question.
Olivia Wein: It is to stay tuned. There will be a uniform start date that will be announced in the near future. And that is when all providers can officially start their program and start that process of the reimbursements and customers can enroll. So stay tuned, please. This is an important space.
Christopher Mitchell: Travis, you had a thousand questions. I think we're at 999.
Travis Carter: [inaudible 00:58:16]. I just want to commend whoever the group is that came up with this because in all the years I've been doing this, this is the very first that I've ever seen, that I think really has a chance to make a difference. So whoever came up with this, kudos, and hopefully we qualify to be a participant in it. So if anyone can help, if anyone at UCARES or whatever they're called is listening.
Christopher Mitchell: USAC.
Travis Carter: USAC.
Angela Siefer: UCARES is a lot better though.
Travis Carter: Yeah. [crosstalk 00:58:43].
Olivia Wein: I'll write that down.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, for all the legislation acronyms that come up, someone in D.C can come up with a way to make that work. There's a lot of other things. I'm not averse to coming back to this. If people who are listening have other questions that they want to send us, my email is traviscarter@...
Travis Carter: Yeah, right. Yeah, I'll be right on that.
Christopher Mitchell: My email seriously is email@example.com. Angela?
Angela Siefer: One more thing. One of the ways NDIA has determined that we can best support EBB is by having staff who can go out and talk to groups about this. So coalitions, associations that want to understand EBB more. We have multiple staff who are, as we speak, becoming EBB experts, so that they can be the person who goes out and talks to someone.
Christopher Mitchell: Excellent. Angela and Olivia, thank you so much for joining us to help us all understand this program.
Travis Carter: Well done.
Angela Siefer: Thank you.
Christopher Mitchell: Travis, thank you for putting up with me once again.
Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: That was Christopher talking with Travis Carter, Angela Siefer and Olivia Wein. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at muninetworks.org/broadbandbits. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @communitynets. Follow muninetworks.org stories on Twitter. The handle is @muninetworks. Subscribe to this and other podcasts from ILSR, including building local power, local energy rules and the composting for community podcast. You can access them anywhere you get your podcasts. You can catch the latest important research from all of our initiatives if you subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ilsr.org. While you're there, please take a moment to donate. Your support in any amount keeps us going. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song, Warm Duck Shuffle licensed through Creative Commons. This is episode 454 of the community broadband bits podcast. Thanks for listening.