The BDN Editorial Board operates independently from the newsroom, and does not set policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.
Maine has launched another round of planning and spending to increase broadband availability across the state. Building internet infrastructure to reach more of the state’s residents is critical at a time when being able to get online is essential for work, school and health care.
However, the cost of connecting to the internet can be as big a hurdle for some people as having an actual connection to a broadband network. There is help in this regard, but too few people know about it, and the application process is too complex.
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, passed by Congress last summer, included $65 billion for investments in the expansion of access to broadband services across the country. Maine is expected to receive at least $100 million. Much of this money, which comes in addition to broadband funding included in the earlier American Rescue Plan, will be devoted to building and improving broadband infrastructure. In addition to a lack of broadband access in some areas, Maine also has some of the slowest internet speeds in the country.
The bipartisan legislation, which Sen. Susan Collins helped negotiate, also included funding to help low-income Americans pay for internet services. The Affordable Connectivity Program, run by the Federal Communications Commission, provides a credit of up to $30 a month to pay for internet services for low-income families. Tribal members are eligible for up to $75 a month. The money goes directly to internet providers, many of which have committed to offering high-speed internet service for no more than $30 a month.
Eligibility is determined by income, which must be at below 200 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, or by qualifying a number of assistance programs, including Medicaid, WIC, SNAP, veterans pensions and Social Security Income.
Eligible households can also receive a one-time discount of up to $100 to purchase a laptop, desktop computer, or tablet from participating providers if they contribute more than $10 and less than $50 toward the purchase price.
The connectivity program is an extension of the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, which created internet subsidies as schools, work and other activities went online as the nation responded to the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.
According to the White House, 15 percent of Maine households do not have an internet subscription, but only 3 percent live in areas where, under the FCC’s benchmark, there is no broadband infrastructure. About 310,000 people, just under a quarter of the state’s population are eligible for the new Affordability Connectivity Benefit.
To date, fewer than 53,000 households in Maine have signed up for the benefit, according to FCC data. That means a lot of Maine people who are eligible for help with their internet expenses are not taking advantage of it.
Eligible people may not be taking advantage of the help because they don’t know about it. But, also, the application process is too complicated.
The National Digital Equity Center, which is based in Machias, has created an online class – a painful irony for people who are trying to get internet access – to help people fill out the application materials, which are available at affordableconnectivity.gov.
An application process that is supposed to promote equity but requires a class is too complex. The FCC is aware of this and has awarded grants for projects that can make enrollment in the Affordable Connectivity Program easier. Pouring more money into the system rather than just simplifying the process feels like the height of bureaucracy.
Using some of the federal broadband money that is coming to the state, the new Maine Connectivity Authority is also working with agencies in the state to promote the internet subsidies and to help people access them. The Aroostook Community Action Program is considered a model for its work to streamline enrollment in the federal internet support program for clients who qualify for other federal benefits.
Internet service providers should also step up their efforts to ensure qualified people know about the Affordable Connectivity Program and to help with the enrollment process.
Finally, the program is not permanent and is expected to run out of funds in 2025 or sooner. If the enrollment hurdles are removed and the program is shown to expand the reach of high-speed internet, permanent funding should be considered.