Don’t have internet and can’t afford it? New programs may change that

Dayton Daily News, August 15

A combination of federal subsidies for customers and state subsidies for internet service providers will make broadband internet available and practical for tens of thousands more Ohio households, including thousands in the Miami Valley. For some families, high-speed internet can be free.

The federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 includes $14.5 billion to subsidize broadband internet service for families that meet basic income qualifications through the Affordable Connectivity Plan.

The program will provide a $30 monthly discount to qualified households connecting to one of more than 1,300 participating providers. It can also offer discounts on computer, tablet or mobile device purchase through a household’s service provider.

To qualify, households must have income equal to or less than 200% of the federal poverty level. That’s $27,180 for an individual or $46,060 for a family of three, according to InnovationOhio.

Families can also qualify if they participate in SNAP, Medicaid, housing assistance, SSI, WIC, reduced or free school lunches, or if they received a Pell grant, the group said.

In addition, the Biden Administration recently reached a deal with 20 internet service providers to offer access to qualified new subscribers for $30 a month. When the ACP discount is applied to service from one of those participating providers, the result is internet service at no cost to the customer.

The companies involved are Allo Communications, AltaFiber and Hawaiian Telecom, Altice USA (Optimum and Suddenlink), Astound, AT&T, Breezeline, Comcast, Comporium, Fios (owned by Verizon), Frontier, IdeaTek, Cox Communications, Jackson Energy Authority, MediaCom, MLGC, Spectrum (Charter Communications), Starry, Vermont Telephone Co., Vexus Fiber and Wow! Internet, Cable and TV.

Numbers on need

The InnovationOhio Education Fund released a report saying 1.2 million Ohio households lack a high-speed internet connection, including more than 62,400 in Montgomery County. Most of those households are low-income, the group said.

According to Terra Goodnight, director of policy for InnovationOhio, those numbers came from adding the number of households without an internet subscription and those with only a cellular data plan from 2019 U.S. Census estimates.

The estimates for 2020 are now available, and are slightly lower, but still show large numbers of people lacking internet access:

· 29,342 households in Butler County, or 20.8% of the population.

· 14,673 in Clark County, or 26.8%

· 6,740 in Darke County, or 31.8%

· 12,802 in Greene County, or 19.4%

· 9,269 in Miami County, or 22.5%

· 59,555 in Montgomery County, or 26.3%

· 4,964 in Preble County, or 30.5%

· 13,057 in Warren County, or 15.6%

Nearly 40% of American households qualify for the ACP discount, the report says. More than 600,000 households in Ohio have already signed up for the ACP discount, but 1.4 million households may still be eligible, InnovationOhio says.

The definition of broadband internet service can include hard-wired phone, cable or fiber optic; a satellite receiver; or a cellular smartphone, the Ireport says.

“High” internet speed is defined by the Federal Communications Commission as downloading at least 25 Megabits per second, but a common public definition is four times that speed, according to the report.

Ordinarily, home broadband service can cost $100 per month or more, according to InnovationOhio.

About 85% of Ohio households have broadband service, but nearly 700,000 still lack a high-speed connection, according to the InnovationOhio report.

According to state figures, however, the number of Ohio households lacking any broadband access is about 300,000.

Counting households where smartphones are the only source of high-speed internet, the total without high-speed home service is 1.2 million Ohio households, the report says. More than half of those are in 10 urbanized counties, including Butler and Montgomery, according to the report.

Black and Hispanic or Latino Ohioans are nearly twice as likely to lack home broadband access as their White and Asian counterparts, the report says, drawing on federal statistics. Only two-thirds of low-income households have a broadband connection, compared to 95% of top-income families, according to the report.

Expanding service

In March the state announced $232 million was available through BroadbandOhio grants to make high-speed internet available to nearly 100,000 households. That’s for companies to make service available, but not to provide a discount for the customers.

“While it does not subsidize the end user, each of the recipients of the Residential Broadband Expansion grant participates in the Affordable Connectivity Program, which provides eligible individuals with a $30 discount on their internet bill,” said Todd Walker, chief communications officer for the Ohio Department of Development, of which BroadbandOhio is a part.

The state grant program was created by House Bill 2, which incentivizes internet service providers to expand infrastructure to underserved areas. The grants will fill the “broadband funding gap,” the difference between the actual cost of building internet infrastructure to serve individual homes and the maximum cost the company considers “cost-effective” to build out that service.

“The grants focused on those that had the most underserved, hardest hit areas, and those that were economically distressed,” Walker said. “In each of the areas, through the grant program, the state will be funding one provider to provide access to unserved and underserved individuals.”

Providing access to high-speed internet for all Ohioans is a priority of the DeWine-Husted administration, he said. Some areas could get higher-speed service in less than a year, but the average construction time is two years, according to a state news release.

To be eligible for state grants, the projects must provide speeds of at least 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload to houses that currently lack that level of service.

The majority of the providers getting grants, however, offer 100 Mbps download and upload speeds, according to Walker.

Among the first grant announcements is $2.1 million for Spectrum to provide fiber service to 1,165 households in Clark County, with speeds up to 1 Gigabit download and 500 Megabit upload.

A BroadbandOhio map shows new broadband projects in at least small portions of all area counties except Miami and Montgomery. Despite that, Montgomery and all seven contiguous counties will still have some areas that lack high-speed access, though much of Butler, Warren and Montgomery have it already, according to the map.

“These projects will make affordable, high-speed internet available to more than 43,000 Ohio households,” a state news release says. “As part of the grant process, several internet service providers also committed to independently fund 71 other broadband expansion projects serving approximately 52,000 households and impacting areas in 31 additional counties.”

Butler, Darke, Greene, Montgomery, Preble and Warren all among the counties “impacted” by those 71 additional commitments.