Sunday, November 27, 2022

New federal programs offer Virginia households a subsidy for affordable high-speed internet

A Comcast truck outside the Virginia Capitol. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

RICHMOND — Federal and state officials are rolling out a fleet of new programs in an expansive effort to bring faster and less expensive internet to all Virginians, especially those who have had trouble connecting in the past.

The Biden administration announced last week an agreement with internet providers that will effectively offer free internet access to low-income households. 

“High-speed internet is not a luxury any longer. It’s a necessity,” President Joe Biden said at a rose garden event last week to announce the plan, alongside representatives from participating companies and members of Congress.

The agreement builds on an internet subsidy that is part of the massive infrastructure spending bill Congress passed last year. Both Virginia Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner supported the law. Warner, a longtime proponent of broader internet access, was one of the lawmakers who negotiated the $1 trillion infrastructure package. 

“We’ve made great progress in expanding broadband in Virginia, but too many Virginians still face challenges in accessing internet due to high costs. These steps to lower internet costs for families are critical to address that gap,” Warner and Kaine said in a joint statement on the deal.

In addition to that deal, the U.S. Commerce Department on Friday launched a $45 billion “Internet for All” initiative. States can apply for grants to build infrastructure or develop education projects that can bring fast internet to rural areas and other communities who have not been connected online.

The initiatives are part of a massive push to make high-speed internet more affordable and attainable — an effort that has been in the works for years but is getting new cash-inflows in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic demonstrated the urgency for internet access as people relied on remote connections for medical visits, school and work. 

In response, Congress allocated record funding levels to expand broadband access to underserved communities – through the infrastructure bill, various COVID relief bills and the fiscal 2022 spending bill. The American Rescue plan allowed Virginia lawmakers to allocate more than $700 million of federal pandemic aid to broadband expansion.

Kaine and other senators recently sent a letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee asking for another $350 million in next year’s spending bills for the Agriculture Department’s broadband grant program. 

The funding and attention provide an opportunity to make huge strides to provide high-speed internet to most people who want it, if states work to invest it properly, according to advocates for affordable internet.

“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity. If states and localities miss the boat here, they are going to have a hard time getting the opportunity again,” said Greg Guice, director of government affairs for Public Knowledge, an advocacy group. “They should make sure they are laser-focused on getting broadband to their citizens.”

Virginia’s digital divide

For those in rural or underserved areas, an affordability program is no help if high-speed internet is not available in their area. Virginia state officials estimated last year that there were 233,500 households and businesses without high-speed internet access.

The Broadband Association of Virginia estimates the state currently has a little over 50,000 underserved homes, businesses and community institutions. 

“The biggest challenge from a public policy standpoint, and we are very pleased the Virginia legislature and past governors have developed the infrastructure for it, is to get broadband to those who have none,” said Ray LaMura, president of VCTA the Broadband Association of Virginia. 

The industry has already made strides in Virginia. Five years ago more than 650,000 households did not have internet access and now that number is down to 50,000, according to the Broadband Association. But those last unserved households may be the most difficult and expensive to connect, LaMura said. Many are in remote areas, far from roads, or not on government water and sewer.

Recent mapping from Virginia Tech’s Center for Geospatial Information Technology shows large areas in the southern part of the state where the majority of households lack high-speed internet connections. The Commonwealth Connection mapping tool, developed with the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development’s Office of Broadband, was released last month to give local governments data to request funds and request infrastructure. 

Affordable Connectivity Program

The White House brokered the affordable internet package with 20 providers nationwide. In Virginia, Cox, Spectrum and Verizon Fios agreed to offer the $30 per month high-speed plans for low-income households. The prices are available for those who qualify for the Affordable Connectivity Program, which began at the start of this year. 

That program, established in the infrastructure bill, provides a $30 monthly stipend for eligible households. So with the new deal from internet providers, access to broadband can be essentially free for those customers. 

About 23 percent of Virginians —1,908,000 people — should qualify, according to estimates from Kaine and Warner.  

The Federal Communications Commission awards the discount to households with income at 200 percent of the federal poverty guideline or lower – which equates to $55,000 or lower for a family of four.

The discount is also available to those who qualify for other forms of government assistance, like Medicaid, SNAP, Veteran Affairs benefits, free and reduced-price school lunch or federal Pell Grants. 

A new federal website GetInternet.gov can help people determine if they qualify and sign up for the program.

What’s next: The White House is launching a website, GetInternet.gov, and reaching out to eligible households through federal agencies to encourage enrollment.

As many as 48 million households qualify for the program, a senior administration official said. So far, just over 11.5 million have signed up.

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Robert Zullo for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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