The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The government has a program to cut your Internet bill. Verizon was using it to force you onto a new data plan.

Help Desk: Readers tell our tech columnist about shenanigans signing up for the Emergency Broadband Benefit, which is supposed to knock $50 off monthly bills

(Washington Post illustration/iStock)

Update: This story has been updated to describe a change in Verizon policy made after initial publication.

The government has a new program to help Americans pay their Internet bills. Unfortunately, companies like Verizon have been twisting it into an opportunity for an upsell.

Last week, I wrote about the arrival of the Emergency Broadband Benefit, or EBB, the largest federal program ever to help people afford Internet access. The EBB can cut $50 off monthly Internet bills and is available to tens of millions of Americans hit economically by the coronavirus pandemic. There’s $3.2 billion up for grabs, until the program ends when money runs out in the months ahead.

All Internet service provider participation in the program is voluntary, and each ISP gets to write some of its own rules for how to hand out the money. Soon after the EBB launched, I started hearing from Washington Post readers about their frustrations signing up with certain ISPs.

Help Desk: Ask our tech columnist a question

None of this should stop eligible Americans from trying to claim their broadband benefits — read this piece for my advice.

Verizon elicited the most ire from readers. It requires customers to call a phone line to register for the EBB, rather than just signing up online. And when you do, Verizon told some customers the EBB can’t be used on “old” data plans, so they’d have to switch. That might be allowed by the letter of the law but certainly isn’t the spirit of the program.

On Wednesday, two days after I initially published this column, Verizon reversed course and said it would accept old plans. “We heard from some customers that they prefer to stay on the legacy plans they have,” it wrote in a blog post. “Moving forward, we will offer customers on legacy Fios plans (no longer in market today) the ability to enroll in EBB.”

But it’s still important to keep these shenanigans on the record, so here are the reader complaints that came through loud and clear:

Reader Eric from Hopedale, Mass., who asked to be identified only by his first name, was told his current no-contract Internet service, which costs $62 per month, would need to become part of a new Verizon Fios plan. That would run him $79 per month.

Yes, Eric would save money in the short term thanks to the $50 government discount, but when the EBB program runs out, he’ll have to pay more each month. “I’m sure the whole point of Fios doing this is to get more people to sign up for either their TV or mobile services,” he said in an email.

Annie Styles from Arlington, Va., who pays $79 per month for her Internet, says Verizon told her she would have to switch to a plan that would cost her closer to $95. “I stopped pursuing it with them after the math didn’t work out,” she says.

Sharon from Harrisburg, Pa., who asked to be identified only by her first name, said she was told by two customer service representatives that she could receive the EBB discount only if she increased her current Internet speed and reconfigured her TV package, too. She said the ultimate price would have depended on what video package she was forced to switch to, as well as new equipment with fees — but she dropped her EBB application out of frustration before she got that far.

When the EBB ends, she estimates, her overall monthly Internet and TV bill would be at least $50 higher. “In my case, it seems like EBB only benefits Verizon,” she said.

Verizon spokesman Alex Lawson said the company makes it clear on its site that the EBB can be used on only “qualifying plans.” And those include only its newer Mix & Match plans.

Bad WiFi is slowing you down. Fix yours without spending a dime.

Mix & Match lets customers drop services like home phone that used to be bundled into Verizon’s packages, and Lawson says Verizon has found it saves customers money compared with its older bundles.

“There’s really no story here. We’re on the side of the customer and want to ensure they pay for what they need, and not for what they don’t,” Lawson said.

But Verizon’s new deals don’t mean everyone will save money. Eric said he got his $62-per-month contract for Gigabit Internet as a sign-up special. If he changes his plan at all, he loses the deal.

And unfortunately, Verizon isn’t the only ISP saying it won’t support older plans. AT&T, which also makes customers call to activate the EBB for home Internet, says existing customers will have to select from one of a handful of options, and the plan they select will become their plan after the EBB program ends. Charter says that “an extremely small percentage of customers” who have legacy Internet plans will have to switch to a Spectrum Internet plan as part of enrolling in the EBB.

Review: 5G is the least compelling thing about the iPhone 12

One refreshing standout was Comcast, the nation’s largest ISP. “If a customer is on an old plan that’s not offered anymore, they are still eligible as long as they meet the qualification criteria for EBB,” spokesman Joel Shadle said.