WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden announced Monday that 20 Internet companies have agreed to offer discounted services to low-income people, a program that could effectively qualify tens of millions of households for free services through an already existing federal grant.
“Fast internet is no longer a superfluous luxury. It’s a necessity,” Biden said at a sun-filled rose garden event with representatives of participating companies and members of Congress.
The $1 Trillion Infrastructure Package The Congress passed last year included $14.2 billion in funding for the Affordable Connectivity Program, which provides $30 monthly grants ($75 in tribal areas) for Internet services for millions of lower-income households.
With the ISPs’ new commitment, some 48 million households will be eligible for $30 monthly subscriptions for 100 megabits per second or faster speed service — paying for Internet service in full with government support if they sign up with one of the ISPs. providers participate in the program.
Biden noted that families of four who earn about $55,000 annually — or that includes one who qualifies for Medicaid — get a $30 monthly credit, meaning about 40 percent of Americans qualify.
“This is a case where large companies come to the fore. We’re trying to get others to do the same,” Biden told the crowd amid sustained applause. “It’s going to change people’s lives.”
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Lawyers were cautiously optimistic.
“It could be a game-changer,” said Marty Newell, coordinator for Rural Broadband Policy at the Center for Rural Strategies in Whitesburg, Kentucky, where he said slow internet has plagued residents and businesses alike.
Newell said he wanted to see more about what the program will mean in the future, but his main question — given that more broadband access is generally a bipartisan issue in Congress — is “why have they taken so long?”
During his White House run and the push for the infrastructure bill, Biden made expanding high-speed Internet access into rural and low-income areas a priority. He has repeatedly spoken out about low-income families who struggled to find reliable Wi-Fi, so their children could start early the coronavirus pandemic, including, he said Monday, families driving to McDonald’s parking lots to access wireless internet at the restaurant.
The 20 Internet companies that have agreed to lower their rates for eligible consumers will offer services in areas where 80% of the U.S. population, including 50% of the rural population, lives, the president said. Participating companies offering services on tribal lands offer a rate of $75 in those areas, the equivalent of the federal government subsidy in those areas.
Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris also met on Monday with telecom executives, members of Congress and others to draw attention to efforts to improve access to high-speed internet for low-income households. The president said a top priority going forward will be to increase competition among ISPs in many parts of the country, noting that millions of Americans live in areas with only one provider and are paying higher prices as a result.
The participating carriers are Allo Communications, AltaFiber (and Hawaiian Telecom), Altice USA (Optimum and Suddenlink), Astound, AT&T, Breezeline, Comcast, Comporium, Frontier, IdeaTek, Cox Communications, Jackson Energy Authority, MediaCom, MLGC, Spectrum (Charter Communications), Starry, Verizon (Fios only), Vermont Telephone Co., Vexus Fiber, and Wow! Internet, cable and TV.
U.S. households are eligible for grants through the Affordable Connectivity Program if their income is at or below 200% of the federal poverty level, or if a family member participates in one of several programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Federal Aid for Public Housing (FPHA) and Veterans’ Pension and Survivors’ Benefit.
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