Home » Through a government subsidy, millions are now getting free or low-cost internet – Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Through a government subsidy, millions are now getting free or low-cost internet – Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

by Arifa Rana

More than half of the households in some Milwaukee neighborhoods are now enrolled in a federal program aimed at delivering low-cost or even free internet service.
It’s an important milestone in the efforts to get high-speed internet, also known as broadband, to families who otherwise couldn’t afford it.
But much of the money has gone for cellphone-based service that’s often a poor substitute for a wired connection in the home. 
“It’s a very limited stopgap,” said Barry Orton, professor emeritus of telecommunications at University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Recent data from the Federal Communications Commission showed that nearly 60% of the homes in some City of Milwaukee neighborhoods were enrolled in the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) that offers a $30 monthly subsidy for internet service.
Milwaukee County had more than 63,000 participants. Statewide enrollment was around 200,000 participants, or 8% of households.
Nationwide, as of February more than 10 million people had signed up for the program, a sequel to the Emergency Broadband Benefit phased out at the end of last year. 
“That’s a big number, but I’ve seen estimates that as many as 30 million homes might qualify,” said Doug Dawson, a broadband consultant from North Carolina who’s worked with cities in many states, including Wisconsin, to improve their internet access.
The ACP subsidy is available for households with incomes at or below 200% of the federal poverty level, or that meet other criteria such as having a child enrolled in the free and reduced-price school lunch program.
Sometimes it will cover most, or even all, the cost of a home internet subscription.
“But let’s face it. Even after a $30 discount, most cable company plans are still unaffordable for low-income homes,” Dawson said.
Instead, a cellphone becomes their de facto broadband provider.
Nationwide, well over half of ACP subscribers have used the program to lower their cellphone bill by $30 a month rather than apply the subsidy toward a wired online service, according to Dawson.
It’s allowed because those subscribers can access the internet on their phone. But it’s not as fast or reliable, and often there are expensive data caps. 
“ACP is being portrayed as helping to solve the digital divide, and I’m not sure that it is,” Dawson wrote in a column. 
So why have so many people used the subsidy for cellular, rather than wired, service?
It’s a matter of balancing household budgets, according to Orton, and the reality is that around 95% of Americans have cellphone plans. 
“If you can get 30 bucks a month off something you’re going to have to pay for anyway, then of course you’re going to take it,” he said.
Charter Spectrum has an internet plan exclusively for ACP subscribers, which after the $30 subsidy, doesn’t cost the customer anything. 
The Spectrum 100 plan offers 100 megabit per second download speeds, and 10 Mbps uploads, over a cable connection. Even for a household with several family members online at the same time, it would be adequate for school, work, and entertainment.
The plan includes a modem, a self-installation kit, and in-home Wi-Fi service. There are no data caps, contracts or cancellation fees, according to Charter Spectrum.
“There’s really no risk,” said Gary Underwood, group vice president of government relations.
AT&T also says it has a $30 per month 100 Mbps internet plan, which after the ACP subsidy, would be for free for the customer. 
Over the last four years, the company said, it’s expanded Wisconsin coverage by nearly $800 million in wired and wireless networks, including around $275 million in Milwaukee.
AT&T, and Spectrum, have partnered with the Milwaukee nonprofit Digital Bridge to provide refurbished computers, and digital skills classes, to low-income users. 
Through community partnerships, Underwood said, Spectrum has been able to get many families online who otherwise couldn’t have afforded it. 
“I believe that we’re making great progress,” he said. 
Last summer, Milwaukee was one of eight U.S. cities chosen by Microsoft Corp. for a pilot project aimed at bringing low-cost internet to urban residents. Initially, in Milwaukee, the project was aimed at around 1,700 people in the Lindsay Heights neighborhood, a 110-block area from Walnut to Locust streets and I-43 to 20th Street.
Microsoft partnered with the nonprofit PCs for People to offer internet access in Lindsay Heights for $15 a month. After the ACP subsidy, the service wouldn’t cost qualifying customers anything. 
After a slower than expected start, the program now has wireless transmitters mounted on two fire stations and the Innovations and Wellness Commons building near North 16th Street and West North Ave.
Around 75 households have been connected, according to PCs for People. 
Volunteers hung flyers on doors advertising the new internet option. But some people were skeptical of whether it was for real. 
“I think the biggest challenge for me is to show our community that this is not a scam,” said Thamiris Hastings, community impact manager for PCs for People in Milwaukee.
Hastings said people told her that $15 a month internet service, with no hidden fees or a credit check, sounded too good to be true.
“And I understand them because I came from that kind of background,” she said.
Hastings grew up in Recife, Brazil, a city of around 1.7 million on the South Atlantic Coast. She moved to the United States in 2016 to work as an au pair for an American family, got married, and landed in Milwaukee.
She was a hospital nursing assistant before accepting the job with PCs for People earlier this year. She’s also pursuing a master’s degree in business at Concordia University. 
Hastings said the PCs for People role satisfies her desire to give back to the community that welcomed her as an immigrant.
“I have had nothing but a great experience here,” she said.
The Lindsay Heights internet has expanded into adjacent neighborhoods and now includes a partnership with the city’s Housing Authority.
“It’s good to be moving from a pilot program phase into more of a community-based rollout,” Hastings said.
Backers of the program said the creation of Hastings’ job was an important step in overcoming community skepticism and spreading the word. 
Francesca Dawson was one of those residents who had doubts after she got a flyer on her door saying the $15 per month service had been launched. 
“I question everything,” said Dawson, who works in the Information Technology field. 
But she eventually signed up and has been satisfied with the speeds and the ability to have multiple devices online at the same time.
“It seems to be working just fine,” she said.
At the peak of the pandemic in 2020, Microsoft Corp. found that 340,000 people in Milwaukee County – more than one in three – weren’t using the internet at true broadband speeds.
Moreover, there were wide disparities between rich and poor neighborhoods.
Microsoft executive Vicki Robinson, originally from Milwaukee, said she’s been meeting with city officials about expanding the Lindsay Heights internet. 
It’s gone slower than she would have liked, Robinson said, but it was important to get certain pieces of the system in place before moving forward. 
Robinson grew up near Lindsay Heights and still has family in Milwaukee. She lives in Washington, D.C. and is general manager of Microsoft’s Airband Initiative that partners with nonprofits to bring internet access to cities and rural areas. 
Affordable internet is a three-legged stool of access, devices, and skills training.
“You really need to have all these things simultaneously for people to actually adopt and then stick with it,” Robinson said. 
The $14 billion Affordable Connectivity Program grew out of President Joe Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. There’s no set expiration date on the $30 a month subsidy, although if it does end, the FCC is supposed to give consumers a few months advance notice.
Some internet service providers abused the earlier Emergency Broadband Benefit by enrolling unqualified households in order to collect what then was a $50 per month subsidy. 
The companies suspected of fraud weren’t named by the FCC, but the agency said a handful of them were responsible for most of the abuse uncovered in Alaska, Florida, Arizona, California, Colorado, and New York. 
“Evidence shows this is not consumer-driven fraud. Enrollment data directly links certain service providers and their sales agents,” the FCC’s Inspector General said in a memo. 
Questions remain about how programs like ACP will be funded should they become permanent, or what happens if they’re suddenly ended. 
At some point, said Orton with UW-Madison, “We are approaching a giant cliff” with many new ways of doing things derived from the pandemic. 
“We’re getting very used to having them,” he said. 
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