TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—After two years of work and events being held virtually, and students having to move to fully online learning, the importance of quality high-speed broadband access has only been further cemented as a modern day utility.
While access to broadband is an issue that has seen increased attention, affordability is another parallel concern. As a part of the push to improve broadband access and affordability, the federal government directed $14.2 billion in funding to modify and extend an already existing program into the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP).
The ACP provides federal discounts of up to $30 a month that goes toward internet services for eligible low-income individuals and families, and up to $75 a month for customers on Tribal Lands and Native American reservations.
Not all internet providers are participating in the program. A full list can be found here.
To qualify for ACP, a household must be at or below 200% of the federal poverty guidelines. There are also a myriad of other federal programs that, if a member of a household is participating in, can qualify that household for the ACP. These programs include SNAP, Medicaid, and Federal Public Housing Assistance.
While the ACP holds the promise to quickly make a big difference in a household’s internet bills, the word about it isn’t spreading to everyone that needs to hear it.
New York is one of the leading states in the country for percent enrollment, though only around 40% of eligible households are signed up for the subsidy program. A May estimate from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) found that nearly 1,380,000 million eligible households were not signed up in New York State.
ARC, a federal-state partnership that works to improve the socioeconomic conditions of the U.S.’s Appalachian region, only focuses on New York’s Southern Tier Region, which is the northernmost reach of Appalachia according to the commission’s definition. In the 14 counties that comprise the Southern Tier alone, the ARC’s May estimate found that there is over $36 million in annual unused funds from the Affordable Connectivity Program.
In March, Gov. Kathy Hochul was touting how the state’s outreach efforts would result in $36 million being distributed from the ACP through 2022.
“Just imagine for a moment what $36 million of federal funding coming into your communities would do for the region. It’s pretty powerful to think about,” said Curtis Hansen, the Broadband Program Manager for the ARC.
In just Tompkins County, the ARC estimated that the total eligible households for the program was at 12,915 and, as of May 1, found that only 2,551 households were signed up for the ACP. According to the ARC, this leaves an estimated $3.73 million of unused federal funds on the table for the affordability program.
If and when these funds are more widely distributed, in the view of Chris Mitchell, the Director of Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, the ACP should not be regarded as a long term solution to the problem of broadband affordability.
Mitchell is a supporter of the program for the immediate difference it can make in the wallets of low-income households, but the larger problem he points to is the dominance large internet providers have in the American telecommunications industry. As it stands, internet service in the U.S. is slower and more expensive than other developed economies in North America, Europe, and Asia.
“I don’t like seeing public dollars going to companies that routinely flout the public interest,” said Mitchell.
He added, “One of the things that we have to keep in mind is that while we don’t want to reward companies that have done a poor job of building out to people that need it, we also don’t want to penalize people in difficult economic circumstances just because they’re stuck with a big company that we don’t want to subsidize.”
Rural communities and low income urban communities have notoriously been left unserved or underserved by internet service providers for the simple reason that they often don’t serve a company’s bottom line, whether it’s because of the low returns that would come from a sparse population density, or a community where a company might people struggles with paying the bills.
There is hope on the horizon. As a part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the federal government is putting $65 billion forward to help close the gap in broadband access in those types of communities. That money is yet to be distributed to the states, but the poor conditions around service led some communities, like the Town of Dryden to pursue a municipal broadband project which is close to finishing the infrastructure development for its pilot program.
Dryden’s motivation is to bring the cost down, up the speeds, and beat out the competition altogether. Dryden Town Supervisor Jason Leifer, who’s held the position since 2008, said that internet speeds, cost, and the customer service Dryden residents have received have been some of the most consistent complaints he’s heard since being elected to office.
The funding, Mitchell hopes, will be a stepping stone to longer term solutions in the broadband space.
“We should be doing things in the short term to make sure that people have a life raft to get the services they need,” he said. “And in the longer term, we should be trying to create a functioning market that will work well.”