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Few in Massachusetts are taking advantage of a new federal Internet subsidy

The state ranks 44th among eligible residents

Data from the FCC indicate 21.3 million Americans don't have access to broadband -- a much smaller figure than the Microsoft data show.Microsoft

A new federal program offering billions of dollars to help people in need pay for Internet service kicked off in May, but not many Massachusetts residents are taking advantage yet.

So far only 34,116 people in the state have signed up for the Federal Communications Commission’s Emergency Broadband Benefit program since enrollments began on May 12. That ranks 29th in the country, according to federal statistics. Some similar-sized states have done much better, as 81,549 people signed up in Indiana and 57,991 in Maryland. Nationwide, some 3.3 million people have signed up.

Under the program, the government will pay up to $50 a month for Internet service for at least the next six months. To be eligible, households must have low income, participate in other federal aid programs such as SNAP, Medicaid, or Lifeline, receive a Pell Grant student loan, qualify for free school lunches, or have experienced “a substantial loss of income” because of job loss or furlough since February 2020. Eligible households can also get up to $100 to buy a laptop, desktop, or tablet computer. Congress included $3.2 billion to pay for the program in the COVID relief bill passed last December and the FCC says it can run the program until the money runs out.

As a percentage of eligible people, only 3 percent of Massachusetts residents have signed up, which ranks 44th, according to data from the National Lifeline Association, a nonprofit that supports federal communications subsidy programs. That’s far behind leaders Louisiana and Oklahoma, where 13 percent of eligible residents signed up for the benefit.

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Given the eligibility requirements and the government’s desire to avoid fraudulent claims, the program has an application process that many have found complicated, particularly if they can’t get online before they start getting the subsidies. Generally, people have to confirm their eligibility by navigating the site https://getemergencybroadband.org/ or calling the program’s help center at (833) 511-0311.

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“There are clearly structural challenges that are in the way of people taking full advantage of the broadband benefits,” said Dan Noyes, co-CEO of Boston-based nonprofit Tech Goes Home that helps people get connected and learn how to use online resources.

The program’s application process doesn’t support many languages and some Internet service providers have tried to “upsell” participants to more expensive plans, he added. At the same time, the FCC hasn’t set a specific end date for the program when the $50 subsidy will disappear.

“If you’re a family struggling with your budget, you can’t sign up for an Internet plan that could cost you a bunch of money at some point but you don’t know when,” Noyes said.

Boston has reached out to social service agencies serving seniors, new immigrants, and residents of public housing to help publicize the new program, said Mike Lynch, director of broadband and cable for the city. He agrees that the FCC’s system for applying is “a bit of a complicated process,” adding that the city is willing to help people figure it out.

The subsidy program works through Internet service providers such as Verizon and Comcast. Neither company would disclose how many customers have signed up for the FCC benefit in Massachusetts. Both companies said they have their own programs in place to address Internet affordability in addition to the FCC subsidy.

“We’ve been in this space for a very long time and we’re doing everything we can do,” a spokeswoman for Comcast said.

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Aaron Pressman can be reached at aaron.pressman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @ampressman.