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FCC Temporarily Offering Up To $50 A Month For Low-Income Americans To Access Internet

Wikimedia commons
Wikimedia commons

Like many inequalities highlighted and exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, unequal internet access in rural and urban areas alike became a lightning rod as millions of Americans were learning and working from home.

In an effort to close the so-called digital divide, the Federal Communications Commission is temporarily providing low-income Americans discounted Internet access.

The “Emergency Broadband Benefit” program — funded by the 2021 federal COVID relief package — would give eligible Americans subsidies of up to $50 per month for their internet service bill. That money would be paid directly to participating residential web providers. The program also provides discounts up to $100 for purchasing a computer or tablet.

Angie Cooper of Heartland Forward — an organization that is helping to raise awareness about the program in Illinois and three other states — said having access to the Internet is imperative in a modern society, and even serves a public health purpose.

“The last 15 months, as we all know, have shown us that access to affordable high-speed Internet is essential for everything we do,” Cooper said. “It’s essential for school, it's essential for work, even for signing up for vaccinations or maintaining special connections.”

Cooper also stressed the issue of broadband connection is universal and not just limited to people who live in isolated areas.

“While there are challenges in smaller communities or rural areas, the urban areas are experiencing the same type of difficulties, especially as it relates to cost,” Cooper said.

The program is slated to last for either six months after the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declares an end to the pandemic, or until the program runs out of money — whichever comes first.

In order to qualify for the program, at least one person in a household either needs to have an income at or less than 135% the federal poverty level (i.e. $17,388 for a household of one), are currently receiving aid from certain government assistance programs (e.g. SNAP, Medicaid, a Pell Grant, or the FCC’s phone-service Lifeline program), or suffered financially due to losing their job during the pandemic.

Cooper said more than 56,000 households statewide have already signed up, but there’s still plenty of funds to go around.

“If you compare that to neighboring states, Michigan, for example, there's been over 86,000 households that have signed up,” she said. “When you look at Pennsylvania, which [has] sort of a similar population [to] Illinois, over 100,000 households have signed up. So it really goes to show you that there are dollars out there that still exist.”

Although Illinois has made strides in the past few years to expand broadband access, there are still areas of the state that struggle to connect to high-speed Internet.

For example, according to research and advocacy group BroadbandNow, a majority of residents in Alexander and Calhoun County in southern Illinois do not have regular access to broadband speeds of even 25 megabits per second. Additionally, only about one fifth of Illinoisans have access to fiber-optic connections.

Increased internet use during the pandemic exposed the state’s weak internet connection infrastructure in the state’s rural areas, which already lacked consistently reliable web service. Some school districts in rural areas didn’t bother with online schooling during the early months of COVID last spring, and rather dispatched bus drivers to deliver both paper homework packets along with lunches for students.

The Illinois State Board of Education last spring dispatched 200 WiFi hot spots to areas around the state where students and parents could drive to and connect.

According to a 2017 U.S. Department of Agriculture survey, only 77 percent of Illinois farms had any sort of internet access, let alone reliable service. Farmers’ work has gotten very high-tech in recent decades, and many need better internet access to operate farm equipment that monitors crop metrics like soil moisture and check economic trends like commodities prices.

Pritzker made expanding broadband access a campaign promise and in 2019 established the Connect Illinois program and an Office of Broadband within the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity in 2019. The broadband expansion program draws from Illinois’ $45 billion infrastructure program lawmakers passed in earlier in the governor’s first year in office.

Applications for Connect Illinois’ second round of matching funds — part of a total $400 million grant program — closed in April. The program aims to get all homes, businesses and “community anchor institutions” like schools and libraries connected to basic broadband service of at least 25 megabits per second by 2024. And by 2028, that service should be upgraded to at least 100 megabits per second, according to Connect Illinois’ long-term plan.

“When we’re done, everyone — and I mean everyone, everywhere in Illinois will have high speed internet,” Pritzker claimed last June at an event touting a first-round Connect Illinois project at a farm in Geneseo in northwest Illinois.

Heartland Forward is looking to work with government partners to find long-term broadband connection solutions after the temporary federal program ends.

“There's a whole range of barriers from access to infrastructure, to the cost and to the quality of service,” Cooper said. “It's that education process, the digital skill, how do you get connected, how do you find your service? So those are the things that our campaign will be focusing on as we go out throughout the next couple of years and work directly to be a resource.”

Eligible participants can sign up for the Emergency Broadband Benefit program through either of the following options:

Derek Cantù is NPR Illinois' graduate student Public Affairs Reporting intern for the spring 2021 legislative session.
Hannah covers state government and politics for Capitol News Illinois. She's been dedicated to the statehouse beat since interning at NPR Illinois in 2014, with subsequent stops at WILL-AM/FM, Law360, Capitol Fax and The Daily Line before returning to NPR Illinois in 2020 and moving to CNI in 2023.