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Loss of federal internet discount program may impact thousands in Vermont

Jun 30, 2024

To replace the loss statewide would cost $9.3 million a year, according to Christine Hallquist, executive director of the Vermont Community Broadband Board.

A shipment of fiber optic cable is delivered to the Washington Electric Co-op in East Montpelier on Thursday, April 21, 2022. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Almost 26,000 rural or low-income households in Vermont were left in the lurch when a federal internet discount program ended June 1.

The Affordable Connectivity Program, which launched in December 2021, provided $14.2 billion in discounts on internet service and connected devices to low-income residents nationwide. That money ran out at the start of the month, and Congress has so far declined to allocate new funding. 

In the Green Mountain State this affects almost 26,000 households, according to a White House fact sheet. Local officials have warned that the loss of the program, which offered a monthly discount of up to $30 and rebates toward a computer, means that many of Vermont’s most vulnerable may soon be unable to afford their high-speed internet bills. 

It would cost $9.3 million a year to replace the discounts, which were available to qualifying households regardless of their internet provider, according to Christine Hallquist, executive director of the Vermont Community Broadband Board.

“If you look at the people who are not connected today, they represent a significantly higher number of low-income families. So the digital divide today is the economic divide,” Hallquist said.

In some cases, communications union districts (groups of communities that unified to build a broadband infrastructure) and local internet providers have been scrambling to try to soften the blow for their customers. 

Maple Broadband in Addison County has upped its own $20 subsidy to $30 per month, according to Executive Director Ellie de Villiers. “So instead of having a $50 credit, these customers now have $30 credit.”

One of the state’s newer communications union districts, Maple Broadband was formed in late 2020 and covers 20 member towns. It was able to absorb some of the impact of the federal funding loss because it had just two Affordable Connectivity Program customers out of 330, de Villiers said.

The loss of the funding will present a challenge, particularly for low-income families who may be working two jobs, doing paperwork and struggling to pay the bills. 

“That’s a whole other level of stress,” de Villiers said.

Burlington Telecom, an internet provider in the state’s largest city, is offering additional options to residents affected by the loss of the federal program in its coverage area. This includes a basic 50MB internet service for $9.95 per month and an enhanced 150MB service for $24.95 per month to customers who qualify, according to a press release. 

At the federal level, U.S. Sen. Peter Welch, D-Vt., is among a bipartisan group that has been pushing for Congress to revive the program. He co-sponsored the bipartisan Affordable Connectivity Program Extension Act earlier this year in an effort to extend the money, particularly for the 330,000 subscribers on tribal lands across the country. However, that legislation appears stalled.

“The Affordable Connectivity Program’s monthly rebate has been a lifeline in helping thousands of Vermont families, seniors, and veterans access high-speed internet, and the same can be said in states like Texas or Louisiana,” Welch said in an emailed statement Wednesday. “Republicans’ refusal to work with us to extend the ACP is leaving millions of people in the dark. This fight is far from over—I will continue to push to get this program extended however we can.”

Welch is one of almost 9,000 customers of ECFiber, Vermont’s first communications union district, which covers 31 communities in the east central region, according to Chair F. X. Flinn.

ECFiber has about 160-170 people who participated in the federal discount program, but it may be early to tell what the fallout is, Flinn said. ECFiber also provides its own $20 subsidy, which brings the base rate down to $22 a month for people who qualify.

“Typically, it takes about three months for people to get in a situation where they’ve either got to cut back or or get cut off,” he said. “So there’s just not enough information yet.”

The White House’s fact sheet points former Affordable Connectivity Program participants to the federal Lifeline program, which offers up to a $9.25 discount per month.

Comcast, which provides Xfinity internet across Vermont, has plans at $9.95 and $29.95 for people who qualify for federal subsidies. It has also rolled out a new month-to-month, no-contract $30 plan called Now, according to the company.

Less than 2% of Consolidated Communications and Fidium customers participated in the program, according to the company, which declined to share the number of households it serves in Vermont.

As communications union districts and internet providers across the state scramble to fill the hole, the state broadband board has launched a multiyear effort to address the digital divide with a $5.3 million federal equity grant focused on affordability, accessibility and digital skills to ensure that every resident has access to digital technologies, including internet access. 

The money is expected to come in September. While it will not immediately help to pay for the loss of the Affordable Connectivity Program, the aim of the digital equity plan is to provide reliable and affordable broadband service to all who choose to get it by 2034, which could translate to 90% of Vermonters.

The plan includes research in the first year to identify gaps and figure out where to prioritize service, creating a digital network with community partners in the second year, and workforce development to create job opportunities for the digital economy in the third year, said Britaney Watson, the digital equity officer at the broadband board.

While $5.3 million won’t stem the hole left by the loss of the federal program, it is important to help Vermont identify where the hole is and who is most in need, Hallquist said.

“Our plan is to look at the equipment and look at the training and the other things that are needed because the funding needs to come from another source, and that gets very complicated because it’s very expensive,” she said.

Story Written by Auditi Guha, VTDigger

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