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FCC funds for low-income internet access run dry; broadband infrastructure still shoddy

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The White House recently announced an agreement with more than a dozen internet service providers to offer $30 or cheaper monthly plans for low-income households throughout the rest of 2024.
Dave Peters | MPR News 2014

Funds have dried up for a program run by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that helped get more than 23 million households online for free or at a low cost. That includes nearly 245,000 — or one in nine — Minnesota homes, according to the Biden administration.

The Affordable Connectivity Program was launched by lawmakers during the COVID-19 pandemic to help low-income households stay connected to school, work and health care providers. It guaranteed $30 monthly subsidies for internet bills. For people living on tribal land and high-cost areas, the discount was $75 per month. The program ended last month.

More than two-thirds of participating households had inconsistent or nonexistent internet connections before the program launched, the FCC found. Those problems date back to March 2010 with the FCC’s launch of the National Broadband Plan, which was derailed three weeks later by a legal challenge.

“It basically set us back,” University of Minnesota Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication Associate Professor Chris Terry told MPR News on Wednesday. “And now here in 2024, we’re still living with the reality that the plan got started late. The plan was not as functional as people imagined it to be. And the reality is that you have significant gaps in our broadband infrastructure in the United States, including in rural Minnesota.”

The program helped with broadband affordability but didn’t address the lack of infrastructure for Minnesota. The Department of Employment and Economic Development’s most recent map shows people living in rural areas are less likely to have high-speed Internet than people living in cities.

“There’s significant parts of the state that get their internet access over satellite TV providers. But there’s still large portions of the state which are on old-style copper DSL wires, which don't even come close to meeting what the current standard for broadband is,” Terry said. “When you’re talking about rural areas, you know, the difference in a half mile between where the fiber has been run and where the money ran out and people are still on copper systems are pretty significant.”

The Affordable Connectivity Program expired on June 1 after lawmakers, despite eleventh-hour urging from the White House, couldn’t come to an agreement on finding more funding or revamping the program. Last Friday, the White House announced a stopgap measure — an agreement with more than a dozen internet service providers — to offer $30 or cheaper monthly plans for low-income households throughout the rest of 2024. The administration estimates its cooperative plan will could help 10 million households.

The long-term solution to more equitable broadband access, Terry said, is laying more fiber and building out infrastructure. In March, Gov. Tim Walz announced more than $50 million in grants for broadband expansion; that’s estimated to give internet access to 8,900 Minnesota homes and businesses. DEED is also managing future grants from $652 million in federal Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Funds.

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