The Emergency Broadband Benefit has thus far enrolled just 1 in 12 eligible households, but places with low broadband adoption rates show better results

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Digital Beat

John Horrigan
     Horrigan 

Two weeks ago, the Federal Communications Commission released data on how many households have signed up for the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB), a program created by Congress in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The program offers eligible households a discount of up to $50 per month on broadband service. The data, available through the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC) which administers the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, shows that over 3 million households have signed up for the new program. The downloadable spreadsheet shows that 3,125,066 households have enrolled for the benefit.

A close look at the data reveals some highlights:

  • The first wave of data indicates that, thus far, the Emergency Broadband Benefit has enrolled about one in twelve eligible households.
    • Analysis of 2019 American Community Survey (ACS) indicates that 31.7 million households are eligible for the FCC’s Lifeline program. Data on the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) shows that 4.3 million more households used SNAP in 2021 than in 2019. This suggests that 36 million households are Emergency Broadband Benefit-eligible (using Lifeline qualification as a guide).
  • Places where wireline broadband adoption rates are low have exhibited above-average rates of households signing up for the Emergency Broadband Benefit.
    • Puerto Rico and New Orleans stand out as places with high rates of Emergency Broadband Benefit enrollment, along with cities such as Detroit, Milwaukee, Baltimore, Cleveland, and Philadelphia – all of which have high rates of poverty and residential segregation.

Digging into the details

The USAC website shows the number of households in each state who have thus far enrolled in the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program. USAC also reports results in “ZIP 3” areas–that is areas encompassing the first 3 digits in a household’s zip code. That can cover a lot of ground. The 606 zip code in the Chicago area, for instance, encompasses close to half of Cook County–a place with more than 5 million people.

Those aggregate numbers are useful, but two additional data points would be also helpful. First, it would be nice to know the number of Emergency Broadband Benefit sign-ups in a particular city. Table 1 shows aggregate numbers for 5 U.S. cities. Overall, a large number of eligible households in Puerto Rico have signed up for the Emergency Broadband Benefit – 112,666. [See Table 4 below for results in the top 40 places in the United States in terms of Emergency Broadband Benefit enrollment.]

Table 1

City

State

EBB enrollees

Los Angeles

CA

36,358

Philadelphia

PA

29,655

Las Vegas

NV

29,275

Cleveland

OH

28,190

Baltimore

MD

25,032

Urban areas are leaders in Emergency Broadband Benefit sign-ups

Although the overall number of enrollees is of interest, the rate of sign-ups is also worthy of examination. Los Angeles is one of the nation’s largest cities, so it should surprise no one that a lot of households there have signed up for the Emergency Broadband Benefit. Cleveland and Baltimore are less than half the size of Los Angeles but each city has more than half L.A.’s number of enrollees. The Emergency Broadband Benefit sign-up rate, for Cleveland and Baltimore, exceeds that for L.A.

Estimating the rate of Emergency Broadband Benefit sign-ups across geographies involves several steps. First is determining how many people live in a given Zip 3 area, followed by translating the number of people into the number of households in a Zip 3 (since Emergency Broadband Benefit enrollment is at the household level). With that done, it is possible to calculate the rate of the Emergency Broadband Benefit’s enrollment in an area simply by dividing the number of Emergency Broadband Benefit enrollees in a Zip 3 by the number of households in a Zip 3. [See the methodological note at the end for more on the ins-and-outs of doing this.]

Table 2 shows results for the top 10 places in terms of percentage of Emergency Broadband Benefit enrollment. Several places known to have low rates of home broadband adoption—such as Detroit, Cleveland, Baltimore, New Orleans, and rural South Texas counties—have above-average rates of Emergency Broadband Benefit enrollment. Puerto Rico has both a high volume and rate of sign-ups.

Table 2

Place

State

EBB enrollees (households)

% households enrolled

New Orleans

LA

13,280

9.7%

Puerto Rico

PR

112,666

9.4%

Detroit

MI

18,808

7.4%

Milwaukee

WI

21,287

7.4%

Lafayette Parish

LA

16,051

7.2%

Baltimore

MD

25,032

6.5%

Philadelphia

PA

29,655

6.3%

Cleveland

OH

28,190

6.3%

Hidalgo, Starr, Cameron

TX

21,291

5.9%

Tulsa County

OK

14,596

5.7%

These figures show Emergency Broadband Benefit enrollment as a percent of all households in an area; they do not reflect Emergency Broadband Benefit enrollment as a share of eligible households. Not all households are eligible for the Emergency Broadband Benefit. The program’s eligibility criteria track roughly with that for the FCC’s Lifeline program plus households adversely impacted economically by the pandemic. As noted, the number of eligible households is as much as 36 million people, although that does not include households ineligible for Lifeline, but which may qualify for the benefit because of adverse impacts from the pandemic.

Large metro areas have high volumes of sign-ups but lower rates of enrollment

Some of the nation’s larger metropolitan areas do not have high rates of Emergency Broadband Benefit enrollment but have nonetheless signed up sizable numbers of households. For areas that encompass most of the city and county of Los Angeles, more than 64,000 households have signed up for the Emergency Broadband Benefit. Three boroughs in New York City are home for nearly 62,000 households that have enrolled. And 56,000 households in the Atlanta metro area have signed-up, even though the share of households is below the average for the 40 places listed in Table 4 below. Sprawling metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles and Atlanta tend to have lower rates of Emergency Broadband Benefit enrollment, with 4.0% and 3.0% respectively for those two places. For the three New York City boroughs listed, 3.5% of households have signed up for the Emergency Broadband Benefit. Table 3 shows the rate of Emergency Broadband Benefit enrollment in several large metro areas.

Table 3

City

Description

EBB enrollees

% of households enrolled

Los Angeles

City of Los Angeles, portions of LA and San Bernadino Counties

64,484

4.0%

New York

Bronx, Manhattan, Brooklyn

61,960

3.5%

Atlanta

City and most surrounding counties

56,112

3.0%

Phoenix

Phoenix and Maricopa County

37,740

4.1%

Houston

75% of Harris County

21,965

2.2%

San Antonio

All Bexar County

21,415

3.9%

Chicago

Half of Cook County, most of the city of Chicago

21,142

2.4%

Dallas

Nearly all of county

14,791

3.2%

The results for New York and Los Angeles show lower rates of enrollment when combining urban and suburban areas. The Bronx, the least prosperous of the three New York City boroughs with reported results, has the highest enrollment rate at 5.0%, as does the City of Los Angeles. But when surrounding areas are part of the analysis, overall rates of households enrolled falls. Suburban areas may have lower rates of eligible households, and therefore lower rates of enrollment. That, and the fact that Zip 3 boundaries do not necessarily align with how we think of specific places, means that the “share of households enrolled” figures should be interpreted with caution. That said, places such as Houston and Chicago stand out as having low rates of households enrolled in the Emergency Broadband Benefit.

The early Emergency Broadband Benefit data are illuminating but, because it is a first snapshot, it is too soon to draw many conclusions from it. At the same time, the results make sense, which is heartening. Places where need for the Emergency Broadband Benefit is likely to be greatest are the places with high rates of enrolled households. This bears watching as more data is released.

Table 4

Place

State

EBB enrollees

% households enrolled

Puerto Rico

PR

112,666

9.4%

Los Angeles

CA

36,358

5.0%

Philadelphia

PA

29,655

6.3%

Las Vegas

NV

29,275

5.2%

Cleveland

OH

28,190

6.3%

Baltimore

MD

25,032

6.5%

Brooklyn

NY

23,476

2.9%

Phoenix

AZ

22,587

4.5%

Houston

TX

21,965

2.2%

San Antonio

TX

21,415

3.9%

Hidalgo, Starr, Cameron counties

TX

21,291

5.9%

Milwaukee

WI

21,287

7.4%

Chicago/Cook County

IL

21,142

2.4%

Bronx

NY

20,683

4.8%

Detroit

MI

18,808

7.4%

Manhattan

NY

17,801

2.9%

Atlanta

GA

17,753

2.0%

Indianapolis

IN

17,713

5.0%

Tucson

AZ

16,635

5.2%

Columbus

OH

16,489

5.6%

Lafayette Parish LA

LA

16,051

7.2%

Los Angeles County

CA

16,000

2.7%

Cincinnati

OH

15,520

5.0%

Maricopa County

AZ

15,153

3.3%

Dallas County

TX

14,791

3.2%

Tulsa county

OK

14,596

5.7%

Louisville

KY

14,572

4.6%

Atlanta metro

GA

14,307

4.0%

Riverside County

CA

14,179

3.4%

Fayetteville

NC

13,741

4.4%

San Diego

CA

13,559

3.1%

San Bernadino County

CA

13,474

4.0%

St Louis

MO

13,413

3.9%

New Orleans

LA

13,280

9.7%

Greenville County

SC

13,191

3.7%

Detroit metro

MI

12,389

2.2%

Orlando FL

FL

12,385

3.4%

Atlanta

GA

12,319

3.7%

Los Angeles

CA

12,126

2.8%

Tampa

FL

11,899

4.0%

Atlanta

GA

11,733

2.6%

Methodology

Determining the share of households reached in a Zip 3 area requires figuring out the population and number of households in a Zip 3, while being attentive to the geographic areas Zip 3’s cover. Zip 3 boundaries rarely align perfectly with city boundaries. The Zip 3 for Cleveland (441) covers all of Cuyahoga County, but the county’s population far exceeds the city’s (1.23 million for the county and 385,000 for the city). A Zip 3 can also straddle jurisdictions.  The 212 Zip 3 for Baltimore covers all of Baltimore City, but also a sizable proportion of Baltimore County, which results in the 212 Zip 3 having half its population in the city and half in the county. Philadelphia is a rare case where the Zip 3 (191) coincides with the city’s boundaries precisely.

For the number of households in a Zip 3, the U.S. postal service database provides information on the number of people living in 5-digit zip codes for 2015.  Two additional steps are necessary. The first is adjusting 2015 population totals to 2019 – the latest available at Census for cities and counties. The second is determining how many people live in a household in a given city, so that population totals can be translated into households. Census provides that information as well for cities and counties. It is worth noting that the number of people per household does vary by place; in Bexar County, Texas, there are 3.0 persons per household while Cuyahoga County, Ohio, has 2.25. Once the number of households per Zip 3 is in hand, it is possible to estimate the share of households in specific places that have enrolled in the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program. The places listed in Table 4 make up 26.5% of all Emergency Broadband Benefit enrollees. In these places, 4% of all households have enrolled in the Emergency Broadband Benefit.


John Horrigan is a Benton Senior Fellow

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