From left: Christian Seibert, Christina Sexton and Sai Seibert, struggle with Wi-Fi outages at their home in Belton, Missouri. Christian and Sai said their connectivity issues negatively impact their ability to participate in online class. Sexton said she will apply for the broadband benefit. (Zachary Linhares/The Beacon)

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Publisher’s note: As a digital publication that supports equitable access to news and information, The Beacon joined the Kansas City Coalition for Digital Inclusion last fall. You can see a list of all coalition members here

More than a year after the pandemic shifted many essential services online, qualified families across the U.S. can soon apply for new federal aid to offset the cost of internet services.  

The $3.2 billion Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, overseen by the Federal Communications Commission, will begin accepting applications May 12.

But already, there are limitations that could affect the program’s impact. 

For example, the benefit is only temporary — lasting until the $3.2 billion pool runs out or until six months after the pandemic is no longer considered a national emergency, whichever comes first. 

The FCC also did not allocate funding for outreach, meaning it’s up to local governments, nonprofits, community organizations and institutions to ensure residents know about the program and how to sign up.

The program also comes with qualification restrictions. For example, households that make 135% or less of the federal poverty limit, which amounts to a maximum of  $35,775 for a household of four, can qualify for the benefit. People who don’t meet that income limit could qualify if they lost their jobs and experienced a “substantial loss of income” after Feb. 29, 2020, and whose total household income for a single filer was at or below $99,000 last year. 

Christina Sexton of Belton, Missouri, plans to apply for the benefit — right now, she barely makes it under the program’s income threshold. 

“Any little bit of financial assistance helps me at this point,” she said. “With two teenagers and a tween, it’s hard to make ends meet, between school and clothes and food.”

The family has struggled with poor internet connection in the past year, particularly as Sexton worked from home and her kids learned virtually. Spotty internet has made it difficult for her high school and middle school-age kids to keep up with classes in the past year. 

With a $75 monthly internet bill, Sexton said it’s hard on her $35,000 income. She said the limitations on the Emergency Broadband Benefit shouldn’t be so strict. 

“I’m one of those families that could use just a little more of a cushion there to get a leg up as we recover,” Sexton said.

AT&T, Comcast, Spectrum are participating, but not Google Fiber

Under the Emergency Broadband Benefit, families who qualify can receive up to a $50 monthly discount on an internet plan offered by a service provider participating in the program. Households can also receive a $100 discount to purchase a device through a participating provider, as long as they pay between $10 and $50 toward the cost. 

The program is open to new and existing customers. The discounts are directly applied to a customer’s internet plan account.

In addition to the income threshold, there are other ways households can qualify. 

People who receive Medicaid or participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or families with kids who qualify for a free or reduced-price school lunch program are also eligible for the benefit. 

In Missouri, 54 internet service providers are currently participating in the program, according to the FCC, and 63 providers are participating in Kansas — that’s the majority of internet providers in Missouri and nearly all of them in Kansas. AT&T, Comcast and Spectrum will participate in both states. 

AT&T’s 1 gigabit plan — the fastest speed offered by the company — will be offered through the Emergency Broadband Benefit, according to AT&T.

But Google Fiber, which rolled out its 2-gig internet services to Kansas City last month, is not a participant. 

It’s up to internet service providers to join the program and choose the plans they offer to qualifying households. Rick Usher, assistant city manager for Kansas City, Missouri, and a member of the Coalition for Digital Inclusion, said that structure is a double-edged sword. 

“The downside is that you’re limited to really only the providers that are participating in the program,” he said. 

Still, the program could go a long way in Kansas City, where 14% of households don’t have internet access and 10% don’t have a computer at home, according to Census data gathered by mySidewalk. Households that are most likely to lack internet or a device are located in neighborhoods where mostly people of color live and have lower income levels. 

If families struggling with internet costs can benefit from the program, that could  increase the number of Kansas City households with digital access.

“It’s only going to help our community be better,” said Carrie Coogan, deputy director for public affairs and community engagement at the Kansas City Public Library. “There’s going to be people who have access to internet now who may never have had before.”

Kansas City outreach includes hotline, flyers, more

The Emergency Broadband Benefit is the first federal initiative launched since the start of the pandemic to assist with internet access on a national scale. 

The main challenge for cities? Spreading the word. 

“In that $3.2 billion, there’s no money that’s available for local nonprofits, local governments, state governments to promote this program, to do the outreach to the households (and) the families we are trying hardest to reach,” Usher said.  

The FCC created promotional and informational material for cities and organizations to use. But without direct funding dedicated to outreach, it leaves that task to nonprofits, community organizations and digital equity coalitions. 

It’s a challenge that the Kansas City Coalition for Digital Inclusion is preparing for. The regional coalition has been working to improve digital access in Kansas City since 2015. 

At its monthly meeting in May, members focused on how to conduct and organize outreach around the benefit program. 

With over 60 member organizations, the coalition hopes that collaborating with public entities like the Kansas City Public Library, nonprofit groups and community organizations will increase awareness of the program. 

“We feel like it’s so important that members of our community who qualify for this program know about it, that we’re doing everything we can to help try to get the word out,” Coogan said.

Coogan said the library is working to ensure that every branch has the right flyers and information to help people understand the Emergency Broadband Benefit. The library will also be opening up a hotline for people to call if they have questions or need assistance applying. 

As gathering and business restrictions loosen in Kansas City, Coogan said there are also plans to do outreach at community events. 

“We’re trying to reach out to all of our community partners, all of the people that we partner with on a regular basis, to make sure that they know so that they can tell their clients, just to make sure that we’re covering all of our bases,” Coogan said.

Coogan anticipates another challenge will be helping people navigate the jargon and complexities of the subscription plans being offered. Successfully getting people to apply for the new federal program will also rely on building trust and ensuring families that the program is meant to help them. 

If the program proves to be popular, Coogan hopes it’ll lead to more long-lasting policies and solutions to expand internet access and address internet affordability. 

“That’s why it’s so important that there is assistance for connectivity and internet access,” she said, “because it’s vital to our lives — just like water, just like electricity.”

Want to learn more about the Emergency Broadband Benefit? 

Here’s what you need to know if you’re interested.

How does the program work? 

The program will offer up to a $50 discount per month on broadband internet from a provider participating in the Emergency Broadband Benefit. The discount is up to $75 for people living on tribal lands. Families could also qualify for a one-time $100 discount for a laptop, tablet, desktop or device from a participating provider, as long as they make a payment between $10 and $50 toward the cost.

For those who qualify, the discount is applied directly to the plan; the customer doesn’t get the money. 

Who qualifies for the Emergency Broadband Benefit? 

You qualify for the discounts if you or any member of your household meets any of the following: 

  • Your income is at or below 135% of Federal Poverty Guidelines — a maximum of $35,775 annually for a family of four. 
  • You participate in one of the following tribal-specific programs: Bureau of Indian Affairs General Assistance, Tribal Head Start, Tribal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations.
  • You receive benefits from assistance programs like Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Supplemental Security Income, Federal Public Housing Assistance or Lifeline, an FCC program that provides a discount on telephone or broadband internet services. 
  • You qualify for a free or reduced-price school lunch program or breakfast program.
  • You received a federal Pell Grant in the current award year.
  • You lost your job or were furloughed after Feb. 29, 2020, and the household had a total 2020 income at or below $99,000 for single tax filers and $198,000 for joint filers.
  • You already meet the criteria to qualify for an existing low-income or COVID-19 internet plan offered by a participating service provider.

Can I qualify if I have internet bills that are past due? 

Yes, residents who still owe money to their internet provider can qualify.

How do I apply? 

Visit getemergencybroadband.org starting May 12. If you need help with the process or have questions, call the Kansas City Public Library hotline at 816-701-3606. 

You can also apply through an internet service provider, which will help the household apply for the benefit. You can check the list of participating providers in your state here. 

What internet plans are available? 

It depends on the plans offered by internet providers participating in your state. 

I’m part of a community organization that wants to help with outreach. What can I do? 

You can reach out to the Kansas City Coalition for Digital Inclusion on their website to get involved with outreach efforts.

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Celisa Calacal covers economics and civic engagement issues for The Beacon. Follow her on Twitter @celisa_mia or email her at celisa@thebeacon.media.