As millions lose federal help to pay for internet, some areas aim to fill the gap

An 8-year-old girl completes a level of a learning game on a laptop in her bedroom in the Brooklyn borough of New York. As more than 23 million households nationwide lose federal aid to pay for internet services, some states and localities have stepped up by expanding their broadband initiatives and programs.

An 8-year-old girl completes a level of a learning game on a laptop in her bedroom in the Brooklyn borough of New York. As more than 23 million households nationwide lose federal aid to pay for internet services, some states and localities have stepped up by expanding their broadband initiatives and programs. John Minchillo—Associated Press

By MADYSON FITZGERALD

Stateline

Published: 05-14-2024 9:44 AM

In the small North Carolina town of Bryson City, just outside Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Kathleen Wain raises two grandchildren in her subsidized-rent apartment, taking them to sing in a church choir on weekends.

For the past year and a half, Wain has received a discount on her internet service through a short-term federal program, allowing her grandkids to do online schoolwork and her to do remote banking.

Her bill decreased from $52 a month to about $20 a month. “I said, ‘Cool, I don’t have to worry about it anymore.’”

But Wain’s discount ended in April, after Congress did not extend the pandemic-era Affordable Connectivity Program. She’s paying $30 a month since Frontier, her internet provider, has reduced the cost – for now.

“There’s a lot of people that need it [internet] for a lot of things,” said Wain, 75. “I can’t even imagine being without it – I really can’t.”

The federal Affordable Connectivity Program, launched at the end of 2021, has provided a discount of up to $30 per month toward internet service for eligible low-income households and up to $75 for households on qualifying tribal lands.

Now, without additional funding from Congress, more than 23 million households across the country have begun to lose the aid. April was the last fully funded month, with some households receiving partial benefits from their internet service provider through May. Several congressional bills have been introduced to extend the program, but none has advanced yet.

In response to the program’s end, some states and localities have expanded their broadband initiatives and programs to help those no longer receiving the federal boost. That could leave disparities in access across the country, experts say, and many households will slip through the cracks as they become unable to afford internet service.

Article continues after...

Yesterday's Most Read Articles

Memorial Day 2024 parades and events in Concord and surrounding towns
The largest arcade in the world marches on
Concord budget fortellls major future spending
Concord School District leaders stand by principal hiring despite past lawsuit
Internal emails reveal UNH administrators’ desire to quell pro-Palestine ‘encampment’ ahead of graduation
A deep dive into John Stark baseball, the program Dennis Pelletier’s built

Because of the high cost, there’s no alternative to a dedicated federal benefit program like the Affordable Connectivity Program to solve the problem of affordability, said Angela Siefer, the executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, which advocates for broadband access.

“So, what we’re going to end up with is a piecemeal kind of approach where some communities figure out solutions – most of them will not have solutions,” she said.

While some states are bolstering programs to help residents afford broadband, others are boosting their infrastructure initiatives to reach those who still can’t connect to the internet. And some local officials are offering ACP-like benefits through county funds.

In New Hampshire, lawmakers have taken some steps to improve access to broadband; last year the state passed Senate Bill 222, which would allow municipalities to take out bonds to help pay for broadband projects. But the state has not attempted to replace the expired federal subsidy program.

Americans pay more for broadband than almost every other nation in the world. U.S. internet bills average $89 each month, according to a survey of 2,500 Americans late last year by U.S. News & World Report.

The federal Lifeline program, started in 1985, is the only other national initiative giving low-income households a discount on phone and internet service. Lifeline, which residents were allowed to use at the same time as the ACP aid, provides a monthly benefit of up to $9.25 for eligible households and up to $34.25 for those on tribal lands.

New Hampshire participation low

New Hampshire had a relatively low take-up rate of the Affordable Connectivity Program compared to other states. As of February 2024, just 22 percent of those Granite Staters eligible for the program had signed up, according to an analysis by EducationSuperHighway, a nonprofit organization that advocates for broadband access for students. 

Across the country, the participation rate was 44 percent.

Within New Hampshire, the take-up rate varied by city. Berlin had a high rate: 91 percent. Keene saw a 58 percent take-up. But other cities were lower, like Manchester and Nashua, each with 29 percent; Concord, with 24 percent; and Portsmouth, with 18 percent. 

EducationSuperHighway said that it collected its data by comparing census household income data to participation numbers from the FCC. 

Other states had much more success: Louisiana saw 62 percent take-up and in Ohio, 52 percent of eligible people signed up. 

The states that brought more people in were the ones that deployed a top-down approach to promoting the program, from the governor’s office on down, said Adeyinka Ogunlegan, vice president of government affairs for EducationSuperHighway. Her organization often had a hand in putting together campaigns.

“We worked really hard over the last few years to help communities and states tackle those awareness, trust, and enrollment barriers,” she said in an interview. 

But broadband is not always an easy sell for those who don’t already have it, Ogunlegan added. Some were unaware or uninterested in the benefits of internet connectivity. And others found the process onerous, with the application taking 30 to 45 minutes and requiring documentary proof of income level. About 45 percent of everyone who attempted to sign up for the program abandoned the sign up process, said Ogunlegan, citing FCC data.

“Only 25 percent of eligible households even knew the program existed, even up until last year,” she said. “And then when they did hear about the program, trust was also a key barrier.”

Still, one Manchester-based organization, Southern New Hampshire Services, said the Affordable Connectivity Program had been a helpful tool for low-income clients looking to cut costs.

“It was another tool that we were able to offer to our clients,” said Ryan Clouthier, the chief operating officer at SNHS, in an interview. 

“Thinking about internet in today’s world, it’s a lot different than it was in the past,” he added. “It’s not a choice like it used to be. Having access to high-speed internet and equipment is required now to be able to compete in the workforce and for children in school.”

Rising heating costs, energy costs, gas prices, and inflation have eaten into household budgets, Clouthier said. “Oftentimes, you’re looking at all of these bills and trying to find: what’s the priority and what do we need to look at this month?”

States try to fill the gaps

Last year, nearly all 50 states considered legislation to expand broadband access and affordability for communities nationwide, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. At least 45 enacted legislation.

This year, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Oregon, Utah, and Washington passed legislation related to state broadband grant programs and initiatives to help with access and affordability, many using federal funds.

Nick Batz, the director of the Oregon Broadband Office, said now that the federal Affordable Connectivity Program is gone, his office has shifted its focus to building up broadband infrastructure through the federal $42.45 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program, known as BEAD, created under the 2021 infrastructure law.

BEAD provides grants to expand broadband access through statewide development projects.

“The challenge ahead of us is tremendous,” Batz said. “And it’s not something that I can accomplish on my own. It’s not something that my team can accomplish on our own. Really, we need engagement from local governments, cities, counties, and tribes.”

Although BEAD isn’t a benefit program, Aaron Wheeler, the director of the Washington State Broadband Office, is hopeful that it will be able to at least get the 7 percent of households in the state who are without internet connected.

While his office has multiple programs to help households at a statewide level, the federal BEAD program will be especially helpful in identifying the areas most in need, Wheeler said.

“Everyone’s really invested in making sure that BEAD goes well, and that the money goes to the places that it needs to,” Wheeler said. “Getting people plugged in is No. 1, and then making sure people can still continue to afford it is No. 2.”

But with elections drawing nearer, some state officials expect they’ll be working under new administrations. Washington state will have a new governor next year, meaning more negotiations for broadband funding, said Devin Proctor, the policy and communications manager for the Washington State Broadband Office.

Local governments and nonprofits step in

On the local level, some governments have been able to carve out funds to help households pay for broadband. Albemarle County, located in the Piedmont region of Virginia with about 114,000 residents, has invested $1 million in public broadband expansion by partnering with internet service providers that are deploying fiber throughout the county.

That, in addition to about $60 million in state, federal, and private funding, means the county is on track to have universal broadband coverage – where every household in the county can access the internet – by the end of 2025, said Jason Inofuentes, the program manager at the county’s Broadband Accessibility and Affordability Office.

Before the Affordable Connectivity Program ran out of funding, Albemarle County officials created the ACP Bridge program, an additional county benefit for households to use alongside the federal ACP aid. Those enrolled in the program could get an additional $20 per month toward internet services.

Right now, the ACP Bridge has enough funding to last through the next fiscal year, thanks to a $500,000 boost from the county Board of Supervisors, Inofuentes said.

Still, with the federal program at its end, affordability will continue to be an issue, he said. And some residents who need the help may not be aware of the available programs.

“I think that there is a distinct reality that there are going to be households in our community and all over the country that are going to lose coverage because of this,” said Inofuentes. “The way that we see it, we have to work tirelessly to get people enrolled in other programs they can afford.”

In some communities, local nonprofits are raising awareness and providing support, said Sean Gonsalves, the associate director for communications at the Community Broadband Networks Initiative, a nationwide project of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a national nonprofit that works to “build local power to fight corporate control.”

Despite the Biden administration’s push to prioritize funding for municipal broadband, nonprofits and other nontraditional internet providers, these types of providers are restricted in many states, Gonsalves said.

“The broadband market is dominated by regional monopoly providers – and that pretty much answers the question as to why broadband in the United States is so expensive,” he said.

Some nonprofits are helping residents afford broadband.

DigitalC, a technology nonprofit based in Cleveland providing affordable internet for underserved communities, is offering internet for $18 a month under its own Canopy internet service for city residents.

Project Waves, a program fiscally sponsored by the Digital Harbor Foundation based in Baltimore, has been able to offer free internet to low-income residents of the city.

Lawmakers and state officials at all levels have been aware for more than a year that the federal Affordable Connectivity Program would run out of funding, Gonsalves said. But there’s a lot of uncertainty about how to help now.

“With ACP – where 23 million households were beneficiaries – we still don’t have a clear sense of what those folks will do when the benefit expires,” Gonsalves said.

New Hampshire Bulletin reporter Ethan DeWitt contributed to this report.