LeadingAge Urges Federal Action to Improve Pandemic Internet Access for Older Adults

Regulation | February 03, 2021 | by Juliana Bilowich

LeadingAge comments call for the new emergency broadband program to automatically enroll HUD-assisted seniors; the FCC announces roundtable discussion on the broadband program.

**Update: The FCC has announced a virtual roundtable discussion on the new Emergency Broadband Benefit Program for February 12 at 10am ET. The Commission will host the discussion to provide an opportunity for Commission staff and interested parties to examine proposed actions the Commission should take to establish the program. More details will be announced soon.**

As the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) establishes a brand-new broadband benefit program for households impacted during COVID-19, LeadingAge has urged the Commission to make every effort to reach older adults with low incomes, including by automatically enrolling housing-assisted seniors on a building-wide basis. 

Most HUD-assisted senior housing communities lack building-wide internet, and many residents cannot afford the installation, equipment, and monthly services costs. This painful digital divide has left low-income seniors out of common solutions during the current health crisis, including telemedicine and remote options for staying socially connected. “Like other aging services settings, senior housing providers have been on the frontlines of COVID-19 and have witnessed the physical and mental health effects of the crisis on [residents],” the January 25 LeadingAge comments state. 

Following Congressional approval in late December of the new broadband benefit – called the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, or EBBP – the FCC has moved quickly to get the program set up. The benefit program reimburses the voluntary participation of internet service providers, or ISPs, to offer significant discounts on monthly internet services costs for qualifying households; households would also have the option to receive a substantially discounted connected device to access internet. 

In its comments to the FCC, LeadingAge described the devastating impacts of the digital divide on affordable senior housing residents and communities. “During the ongoing emergency, if one thing could help senior housing communities and the people they serve, it would be internet connectivity,” read the comments. 

Effectively and Equitably Improving Internet Access

Because the new benefit is targeted to assist households during the pandemic, LeadingAge urged the FCC to take steps to quickly, but effectively and equitably, improve internet access across the country. LeadingAge strongly supports the new program and submitted a number of requests for the program to best meet the needs of older adults living in federally-subsidized housing. 

Based on the new program’s eligibility criteria, residents living in HUD Section 202 communities can be presumed to income-qualify. LeadingAge has asked the FCC to partner with HUD and ISPs to remove barriers to participation by automatically enrolling senior housing residents on a community-wide basis. LeadingAge also applauded the program’s language that removes any prior internet services debt with the provider as a reason not to enroll a household for the benefit. 

In addition, LeadingAge has asks the FCC to expand eligibility for a discounted connected device from one per household to one per person and to offer these at the steepest discount possible. With the average Section 202 household earning less than $1,200 per month, every cost associated with internet services, including installation fees or equipment, will be prohibitive, and the FCC should incentivize ISPs to cover associated internet start-up costs, and training or technical assistance for first-time internet users.  

Internet Service Provider Participation

Because the success of the program relies heavily on the voluntary participation of ISPs, LeadingAge called for clarity and incentives for small and rural internet providers, especially those serving underconnected communities, to participate in the program. LeadingAge also urged the FCC to support a public outreach campaign to promote the new program, and to require ISPs to communicate clearly about when the program will terminate. 

LeadingAge will continue to work with the FCC to expand internet connectivity across the country, and will advocate with Congress and HUD for other avenues to improve connectivity in affordable senior housing communities. LeadingAge’s Emergency Broadband Benefit Program comments to the FCC are available also online.