Connecting state and local government leaders
To educate residents about the FCC’s broadband subsidy program, the city launched a hotline and a marketing campaign with TV ads featuring the city’s distinct neighborhoods and flyers to hand out at churches.
So, a federal program that provides $50-a-month subsidies for internet service to needy households should be an easy sell. The challenge is making sure residents know about it.
That’s why Detroit designed a local outreach and advertising campaign to inform residents and help them sign up for the Federal Communications Commission’s Emergency Broadband Benefit Program. The EBB 313 initiative included creating a hotline with the local 313 area code that residents can call with questions about the program or to apply and taping TV and radio commercials to spread the word about the program.
The goal was to brand an advertising campaign that speaks to local residents, said Joshua Edmonds, the city’s director of digital inclusion. That included filming TV commercials in Detroit neighborhoods and creating fliers that could be passed out at church or a library. The FCC provided advertising materials for the program, but those ads looked “very sanitized” and directed people to call a 1-800-number, Edmonds said.
While the city advertises the program, residents must sign up individually and subsidies are given on a first-come, first-served basis to eligible households. Some residents were initially skeptical the program was even real, so providing extra outreach at the local level was critical, Edmonds said.
In all, the city has. spent about $200,000 on the ad campaign and paid for call center operations through a public-private partnership, said Edmonds, who was appointed the city’s first director of digital inclusion in 2019.
“Locally, we have been able to stand up a pretty impressive operation,” he said.
The $3.2 billion federal EBB program, which subsidizes the cost of internet and connected devices for eligible households, launched in May.
While the FCC and federal lawmakers initially pushed for internet providers to join the program, there wasn’t as much work to help local governments conduct outreach to inform residents about the program, Edmonds said.
“The digital divide falls on us locally,” he said, adding that it would have been helpful for the FCC to have included some funding to advertise and administer the program at the local level.
But there are signs that Detroit’s outreach efforts are working.
The FCC released data this week that for the first time breaks down the number of households enrolled in the program by ZIP code. Comparing a list of Detroit ZIP codes with the FCC data shows that just under 30,000 households have enrolled since the program launched in May.
Edmonds estimates that roughly 130,000 Detroit households could potentially qualify for the federal program. He’s set his sights on enrolling 50,000 households in the program.
“If we cross the 50,000 threshold, it’s making a massive dent in our digital inclusion efforts,” he said.
To date, the program has enrolled 5 million households nationwide—spending $348 million on monthly internet bills and $30 million to subsidize the cost of laptops, tablets and other connected devices.
Andrea Noble is a staff correspondent with Route Fifty.