Outreach effort boosts broadband affordability program

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Spurred by a state outreach initiative, more than 100,000 additional New York households have signed up for a benefit that makes broadband affordable in the form of a monthly subsidy.

The state launched a multi-agency effort, through the Department of Public Service, to encourage enrollment in the Federal Communications Commission’s Affordable Connectivity Program, which aims to help families access broadband for work, school and health care. The ACP replaced the Emergency Broadband Benefit on Dec. 31.

The benefit offers a discount of up to $30 a month toward internet service for eligible households and up to $75 a month for households on qualifying tribal lands. 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 program rules state. 

A household is eligible for the ACP if its income is at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty guidelines. On average, broadband costs more than $60 a month in New York.

As of March 14, more than 715,000 New York households received the monthly subsidy. Nationwide, more than 10 million households have enrolled. New York has nearly 40 percent of eligible households enrolled, leading the four largest states. 

The outreach campaign, which launched in early January, started with less than 30 percent enrollment. Currently, the total annual subsidies amount to more than $250 million, state officials say. Enrollment numbers have been increasing daily this month.

A coordinated effort among state agencies lies at the heart of the outreach. For example, the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance directs social services agencies to share information with clients and contracted service providers, while Housing and Community Renewal is reaching out to nonprofit housing partners and property owners. Empire State Development is working with the regional economic development councils and leveraging long-term partnerships with internet service providers to increase awareness and enrollment, officials say.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has proven that high-speed internet connectivity no longer a luxury; it is a necessity. Broadband is essential for New Yorkers go to school, work remotely, find a job, start a business, access health care, and connect with loved ones,” says Hope Knight, acting commissioner and president and CEO-designate of Empire State Development.

Earlier this year, Gov. Kathy Hochul proposed a $1 billion ConnectALL Initiative to ensure reliable, high-speed broadband access for all state residents.

“The pandemic exposed how without broadband internet, New Yorkers can be disconnected from school, work, and families,” Hochul said at the time. “The ConnectALL Initiative will empower local municipalities and state agencies to set up nation-leading broadband infrastructure statewide, ensuring that every New Yorker has access to the internet when they need it.”

The effort includes an assessment of broadband availability through an interactive map; grants for local municipalities to plan, engineer, and construct accessible broadband infrastructure; and expanding affordability by retrofitting affordable housing units with broadband installations. Other elements of the plan include a digital equity program and the removal of fees and regulatory hurdles.

The statewide marketing effort geared toward increasing enrollment in federal subsidy program is part of the initiative.

In the Rochester-Finger Lakes region, the digital divide has yet to disappear. In 2019, census data show, an estimated 92 percent of households in metropolitan Rochester had a computer and 86 percent had broadband internet. But regionwide, only 67 percent of households with less than $20,000 in annual income had broadband service; in the city, the share was 61 percent.

Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor. The Beacon welcomes comments from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name.

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