By Amanda Duerr
Internet access has become integrated into nearly all aspects of daily life — staying connected with family and friends, accessing health care resources, connecting children to the classroom, and the list goes on. The COVID-19 pandemic illustrated how broadband networks across the country routinely meet customer demands, providing reliable internet access despite a significant increase in traffic. Cities may want to let their residents know about internet programs for low-income individuals.
The pandemic also highlighted that the digital divide still very much exists. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) estimates that more than 14 million Americans lack access to high-speed internet service (at speeds of at least 25 megabits per second [Mbps] for download and 3 Mbps for upload) — about 11 million of them live in rural areas and nearly 140,000 of them live in Minnesota. And for many families, affordability is an additional limitation. This reality escalated during the pandemic as tens of thousands of Americans lost their jobs.
Many internet service providers have long offered permanent programs for low-income households. Fortunately, governments and internet service providers took additional steps in response to the pandemic to help bridge the affordability gap, and some of those programs are still available today. More than 280 million Americans have access to low-income broadband programs and 85% of homes have access to low-cost programs through their internet service provider, according to NCTA — The Internet and Television Association.
Response to pandemic
The FCC has included broadband as part of its Lifeline program for low-income consumers since 2016. The program offers up to a $9.25 monthly discount on service for eligible low-income subscribers and up to $34.25 per month for those on tribal lands. But for many Americans who lost jobs during the pandemic, that simply wasn’t enough.
In 2020, Congress passed legislation that allocated $3.2 billion for the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) program to help connect eligible households with high-speed internet during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. This important program offers a tremendous opportunity to help low-income families stay connected, including:
A discount of up to $50 per month toward broadband service and up to $75 per month for households on tribal lands.
A one-time discount of up to $100 to purchase a laptop, desktop computer, or tablet from participating providers if they contribute more than $10 and less than $50 toward the purchase price.
As of Aug. 15, 2021, the FCC has signed up more than 4.6 million households for the EBB program. Additional information is available at www.FCC.gov/BroadbandBenefit.
Congress also passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act in March 2020. The CARES Act allocated money to states to assist in the pandemic response and created new opportunities for states to use these funds for broadband expansion.
For example, in Minnesota, Red Lake Nation College sent students technology suitcases, including a laptop, cellphone, and unlimited data, among other items, by using funds that the Red Lake Nation received from the CARES Act, according to the publication Inside Higher Ed.
Federal, state, and local governments were not alone in helping families and small businesses in need. The FCC reports that internet providers across the country offered free and discounted services, increased bandwidth, established Wi-Fi hotspots for public use, and waived installation fees, among other offerings.
Keeping communities connected
The work to close the digital divide does not stop when the country is in economic recovery. There are several annual funding programs and efforts underway at the federal and state level that will bring more connectivity to those who need it most, so all members of our communities can thrive in the 21st century.
For example, Minnesota’s Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant program, established in 2014, has awarded $126.2 million to date, including over $20 million to 39 projects in its latest round of funding. This year, the Minnesota Legislature appropriated $70 million to invest in the program for the next two fiscal years.
The U.S. Senate recently advanced legislation that allocates $65 billion toward expanding high-speed internet access, including an additional $14.2 billion to extend the federal EBB program (renaming it Affordable Connectivity Program). Every American deserves access to reliable, high-speed broadband access, and internet providers need to be part of the comprehensive solution to help close the digital divide.
Amanda Duerr is director, state government affairs, at Charter Communications (www.spectrum.com). Charter Communications is a member of the League’s Business Leadership Council (www.lmc.org/sponsors).