Glitches And Greed Mar Effort To Bring COVID Relief To US Broadband Users
from the band-aids dept
As part of a recent COVID bill, the government announced that folks struggling economically during COVID would be getting some temporary help. Under the EBB (Emergency Broadband Benefit program), U.S. consumers can nab a $50 discount off their broadband bill, or $75 if you live in tribal areas. The program ends when its $3.2 billion in federal funding expires, or six months after the government has declared an end to the pandemic.
To be clear the program is bringing some helpful aid to struggling consumers, with more than 2.3 million users signed up through the voluntary program’s 825 participating ISPs. But this being the busted US broadband industry overseen by fairly feckless federal leadership, the efforts aren’t going without a hitch.
For one, some ISPs like Verizon exploited the program to force consumers onto even more expensive plans (not too surprising for a company that thought it would be a good idea to cap, throttle, then upsell firefighters during an historical California wildfire). Other ISPs like Charter Communications, Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T greatly restricted which plans qualified for the program. A few ISPs, like Charter, rejected users who didn’t agree to sign up for more expensive broadband tiers once the program ends. This violated FCC rules designed to prevent bill shock among poor people, but it’s not clear the agency did much about it.
Charter and Comcast also appear to be rejecting qualified applicants based on incompetence and some dumb database issues. One qualifying Comcast user, for example, was rejected four times by Comcast despite being approved for the program by the FCC:
“Over the last several weeks, Corsaro said he’s reapplied and been rejected by Comcast another three times. He’s followed the circuitous trails of automated FCC phone lines that all lead to dead ends and appealed to the kindness of mystified Comcast agents, who have told him again and again that he needs to finish the FCC’s verification process. “I keep telling them, ‘I’ve been approved. There’s nothing to finish,'” Corsaro said.”
Such complaints are common over at Reddit for both Comcast and Charter. Some of the problems stem from something as simple as “street” versus “St.” not matching between FCC and ISP databases, something it took several months to notice:
“It turns out even the smallest differences in how people enter their data into the different systems can trip them up ? for example, writing Elm St. in one and Elm Street in the other. “We’ve learned in these early days of the program that the information consumers provide to an Internet provider must exactly match, to the letter, abbreviation, and number, the information they enter in the National Verifier,” Comcast spokesperson Joel Shadle said in a statement. He noted that Comcast is “continually working with the FCC and USAC to make the process easy to navigate.”
Again the EBB program is certainly a useful, if temporary, band aid, providing immediate relief to millions of Americans. But the program doesn’t really do much to address the regional monopolization and lack of competition that makes US broadband so mediocre and expensive in the first place. Nor does it address the fact the Trump FCC gutted its own consumer protection authority because a bunch of telecom monopolies asked them to, using completely bogus justifications (something the Biden administration seems in absolutely no rush to remedy).
Instead of fixing the real causes of US broadband dysfunction (monopolization and the state and federal corruption and regulatory capture that protects it), we seem intent on applying layers of cumbersome bureaucracies on top of the problem. It’s like applying a dozen band aids upon a severe arm wound, then wondering why a bunch of plastic strips aren’t truly fixing the problem.