Over 3.3 million homes have now enrolled in the FCC's Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) program, according to the latest data released by the federal agency.
Weekly sign ups have ranged from 200,00 to 400,000 in recent weeks, since the first full-week high of 1.2 million enrollments.
Thus far, $34.6 million of the $3.2 billion emergency fund has been allocated. The Emergency Broadband Benefit is set to end once all the money is spent or six months after the Department of Health and Human Services declares an end to the COVID-19 health emergency, whichever comes first.
Speaking to the Open Technology Institute, FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said that it's clear from the number of enrollments that a long-term affordability benefit is needed.
"For months, we pointed to surveys to show that too many Americans are worried about how to pay their broadband bill. But more than one million enrollees in one week proves beyond any doubt that too many households are struggling to afford to get online. As of this week, that number exceeds three million and continues to grow," she said.
"While the Emergency Broadband Benefit was established to help families get through the pandemic, with these enrollment numbers at this stage in the crisis, I think it's clear that the need for the Emergency Broadband Benefit or something similar will outlast COVID-19."
Long-term benefit a long shot
The need may be there, but any effort to establish a long-term benefit will face hurdles in a Congress that has already shaved $35 billion from the initial proposal for universal broadband, and where disagreements abound about how that funding should be distributed.
The EBB itself bumped into some early challenges, with ISPs like Verizon accused of trying to push customers into higher-priced plans when they called to enroll.
Meanwhile, some broadband leaders say it's time to remove the FCC from the equation entirely.
On a recent panel hosted by Pew, Teresa Ferguson, director of federal broadband engagement for Colorado's Broadband Office, pointed to the Emergency Broadband Benefit program not as a success, but as an example of why decisions about how to solve affordability and access problems should be left to the states.
"Look at the Emergency Broadband Benefit program, $3.2 billion ... Only 8% of the eligible households in Colorado are even applying for that program right now today as it stands," she said. While the feds have a role to play in giving out money and "painting the frame," it should be left to local leaders to fill in the details, Ferguson added.
Speaking to Broadband World News for The Divide podcast in April, Peggy Schaffer, executive director of the ConnectMaine Authority, also said that it was time to "stop giving money to the FCC" for build-out programs like the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), arguing that states are faster and better at building broadband, whereas the FCC gives money to big companies that may not fulfill their obligations.
One of several broadband bills floating around Congress, the $40 billion BRIDGE Act, would seek to give funding to the states to close the digital divide. "The states know best what their problems are, where the gaps are and how best to address them," the bill's co-sponsor Sen. Angus King (I-ME) recently told Axios.
He added that funding could also go to the Department of Agriculture's broadband programs – but not to the FCC, citing the agency's "lousy" maps. However, while he supports including digital equity efforts in final legislation to address affordability, King said the idea of a long-term subsidy is unsustainable.
- FCC cheers 1M EBB signups as ISPs reportedly take advantage
- US broadband gap is three times larger than FCC says – study
- The Divide: ConnectMaine's Peggy Schaffer on the 'street-by-street battle' for broadband
- Funding programs have shrunk US digital divide by less than 1% – report
A version of this story first appeared on Broadband World News.