The Federal Communications Commission, or FCC, recently announced its Emergency Broadband Benefit program, which will provide discounts on broadband, laptops, desktop computers or tablets for qualifying households.
According to a release from the FCC, the program will supply discounts up to $50 per month on broadband and up to $75 per month for houses on tribal lands. One-time discounts of $100 for electronic devices will be given to those who contribute more than $10 and fewer than $50 toward the price.
In order to qualify for the Emergency Broadband Benefit, households must have at least one member meet certain criteria. Some of the qualifications include receiving benefits through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Community Eligibility Provision, experiencing a significant loss of income since Feb. 29, 2020, or qualifying for the Lifeline program.
Jessica Denson, director of communication for Connected Nation, an organization that helps expound broadband access, said the funds available through the Emergency Broadband Benefit will only be available for a limited time.
“There's a certain amount of funds that are available for this program,” Denson said. “And until those funds run out or until the state of emergency is no longer in effect — six months after that date when that's decided — this will no longer be in place. So, it's a discount that's provided to low-income families because, obviously, we've seen how important having access is to different groups.”
Athens County’s high rate of poverty and rural environment factor into a lack of broadband accessibility, allowing them to benefit from FCC’s services.
“So, you take poverty, which means that the private sector is less likely to build it. You take the topography issues, which make it more expensive,” Lt. Gov. Jon Husted said. “Those two combined had a disproportionately negative effect on broadband access for people of Southeast Ohio.”
COVID-19 has factored into the realization of limited broadband by forcing many to work and learn remotely. Husted said the shift to remote work is impossible for those without broadband access.
“Certainly the pandemic has exposed the fact ... that you can't participate in the modern economy, education or health care system without (broadband),” Husted said. “You can't telework. You can't remote work without access to high-speed internet.”
Denson said she has seen a significant learning loss for students who do not have broadband access since the start of the pandemic.
“There was a study from Fresno State University that came out in the middle of the pandemic,” Denson said. “And they stated that models predicted an overall learning loss of 6.8 months for all K-12 kids, but for low-income kids, that anticipated loss was 12.4 months.”
In addition to FCC’s efforts, Husted said the state has been testing a high-speed internet service for a cost of $15 per month in order to combat accessibility in impoverished areas.
“The private sector is testing different models that include advertising and lower rates for homes where children live and reside … in poverty,” Husted said. “So, there are a variety of approaches to this, but we have some that have been tested and proven to work.”
While the Emergency Broadband Benefit targets low-income families with discounts, it does not aid those in rural parts of Athens who don’t have broadband access anyway. Husted said he has also been working on aiding those who do not have broadband access due to their location.
Husted and FCC have been mapping connectivity gaps in America, something prominent within Athens’ rural areas.
“We’re mapping, ‘Do you have access?’ and ‘What's the quality of your access?’ meaning, ‘Is it 25 megabits, 50 megabits, 100 megabits download?’ which determines the quality,” Husted said. “On a regular basis, we talk to people who, while the federal mapping says that you are connected ... we know that they're not. So, we have to continue to refine our understanding of who has access and who doesn't.”
Further initiatives to expand broadband connectivity include President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan. Through this proposal, Biden plans to deliver high-speed broadband to more than 35% of Americans living in rural areas.
While visiting Heritage Hall on April 12, Gov. Mike DeWine said he agrees with the American Jobs Plan’s provision to increase broadband accessibility.
“Everybody has to have the opportunity to have broadband,” DeWine said. “And this is not just an issue for the rural part of the state, although it certainly is, but it's also an issue for the urban part.”
Despite the historical lack of broadband in Southeastern Ohio, DeWine said improvements surrounding connectivity and accessibility will be invested in over the next few years.
“When we look at the federal dollars that are coming into Ohio that Ohio will be able to spend … and then you look at the local communities, we all have a consensus that broadband needs to happen,” DeWine said.