Bridging the digital divide
Published 5:18 pm Tuesday, November 8, 2022
Internet access is vital in this digital age, to help connect people in a variety of ways including work, school, healthcare, entertainment, and more. But for many in the Roanoke-Chowan area, that access can be nonexistent or too costly when available.
The Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) is a recent federal program launched by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) designed to help lower the monthly cost of internet service for those who qualify.
The ACP provides up to $30 per month discount for broadband service, and can also provide a one-time discount of up to $100 for a laptop, desktop computer, or tablet purchased through a participating provider.
“The FCC put about $14 billion in this program, and the purpose of it is to lower the costs of accessibility of existing internet services in your area,” explained Bertie County Commissioner Ron Wesson.
“It can be a very good option to lower your cost of internet, but you really need to know what your needs are,” he continued. “Right now, you really have to be a smart shopper.”
Wesson encouraged people to make sure they know what kinds of upload/download speeds they would need – ranging anywhere from movie streaming to doing online schoolwork – before choosing an internet provider.
According to reporting from the North Carolina News Network, enrollment in the ACP has been low so far despite the fact that a broad range of people may be eligible to participate. More than one million of people across the state, particularly in rural areas, lack regular internet access.
A household can qualify for ACP based on a number of factors such as participation in other federal assistance programs or their household income.
A household is eligible if an adult or dependent participates in one of the following programs: supplemental nutrition assistance program (SNAP); supplemental nutrition program for women, infants, and children (WIC); supplemental security income (SSI); federal public housing assistance (FPHA); veterans’ pension and survivors’ benefit; free and reduced-price school lunch program or school breakfast program; or have received a federal Pell grant in the current award year.
A household can also be eligible if their income is 200 percent or less than the Federal Poverty Guidelines or if a member of the household is already participating in the FCC Lifeline program, which helps make communication services more affordable.
Those who wish to sign up can apply online at afforableconnectivity.gov or by mail or through a participating internet provider.
The ACP website can also help potential participants look up which internet providers are available in their area.
Wesson said ACP is a great option for eligible people to access internet services that are already available, but he acknowledged that existing service is often lacking in Bertie and other local counties.
“We have so many areas where there is literally very little coverage,” he said.
But many are working to close those gaps through GREAT (Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology) grants, and in the future, the CAB (Completing Access to Broadband) program.
Wesson is working through the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners (NCACC) as co-chair of an initiative – created by the NCACC Chair Tracey Johnson – to help counties across the state learn more about those funding resources.
As previously reported by the News Herald, local counties have already received GREAT grant funds from the state. Bertie County received $1.81 million in the first round of funding in July, while Gates County ($3.68 million), Northampton County ($2.70 million), and Hertford County ($1.35 million) received grant funds in September. The state then selected which providers would use those funds to expand local internet access.
Wesson noted that while Roanoke Electric Cooperative wasn’t chosen as one of the GREAT grant recipients, they were still expanding their Roanoke Connect program in the local area, and that will give people more options when they want to choose a provider. He also hoped Roanoke Electric could also be a provider when they move into the CAB program phase.
Following the GREAT grants, the state will allocate funds for the CAB program. Unlike with the GREAT grants, the counties will be required to provide a percentage of matching funds.
“We will map our whole county and see what areas are not covered after that first rollout. That’s the piece that fills in the gaps,” Wesson said about the CAB program.
He estimated that they would have widespread internet coverage in Bertie County in approximately two years with these funding programs.
“We want people to understand that we know how important internet is in today’s world,” Wesson emphasized.
As part of the GREAT grant requirements, all internet service providers must participate in the Affordable Connectivity Program.