Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic in our country, millions of Americans cannot connect to the internet because they can’t afford to, preventing them from going to school, working, accessing government benefits and connecting with friends and family. To remedy this problem, Congress created the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB), which offers low-income consumers a $50 discount on their internet bills. Unfortunately, because of a shortcoming in the National Verifier, the database used to verify consumer eligibility for the program, many of those in need do not access this important benefit, ultimately keeping the digital divide open.
Let’s paint the picture of how. Imagine you can’t afford broadband, and learn that, because you participate in a relevant federal program (like SNAP, Medicaid, free/reduced school meals, etc.), you are eligible for the EBB. Huzzah! To apply, you are told to use the Lifeline National Verifier. The Verifier is intended to be a one-stop shop to verify consumer eligibility for the EBB based on their participation in a different federal program. The idea is that eligible consumers enter their information on the National Verifier website and are approved if the database shows they do, in fact, participate in one of the qualifying federal programs. However, the Verifier doesn’t always work that way, because it doesn’t have data about participation in all qualifying programs. So, frustratingly, if the Verifier doesn’t have data about the program you quality through, you have to go through a whole big process to get documentation that you are eligible. Since you don’t have a lot of time on your hands as the head of a household, and don’t have the internet, you never end up enrolling and stay without internet.
The article goes on to explain how this happen – in short info on the relevant federal programs is not necessarily centrally or easily accessible. That leaves the onerous task of proving need to the potential recipient, who likely has issues accessing broadband if they are applying for EBB. I can only imagine the frustration of the user who knows they get SNAP (for example) but it’s not coming up on the database. We’ve all been there when something doesn’t work online and for many the first response is to assume user error.
The author does offer a solution…
How do we solve this problem? Congress must step in by enacting legislation to require that any agencies that have data share it with USAC in a timely manner, and to clarify that data sharing for verification purposes is legal. To the extent Congress needs to exempt such data sharing from existing privacy laws, it should include that in the legislation. Such laws are intended to protect a recipient’s privacy, but are not intended to be a roadblock to participation in other benefits programs. Moreover, the data to be shared is sufficiently minimal that it does not carry with it the broader privacy risks addressed by our privacy laws. Absent Congressional action, we will be left with a patchwork system, enabling some consumers to breeze through the application process, while others cannot.
The ease of enrollment directly correlates to the number of consumers that enroll. If we want to ensure that the EBB (and any future broadband subsidy) can fulfill their purpose of getting low-income consumers connected and narrowing the digital divide, Congress must ensure that all potential participants can be automatically verified through the Verifier.