The Affordable Connectivity Program offers free, low-cost internet connection

More than half of households in some Milwaukee neighborhoods are now enrolled in a federal program to provide low-cost or even free internet service.

This is an important step in efforts to bring high-speed Internet, also known as broadband, to families who otherwise could not afford it.

But a lot of the money has gone to cellphone-based service which is often a poor substitute for a wired connection at home.

“It’s a very limited stopgap,” said Barry Orton, professor emeritus of telecommunications at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Recent data from the Federal Communications Commission showed that nearly 60% of homes in select city neighborhoods in Milwaukee were enrolled in the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) which provides a $30 monthly subsidy for internet service.

Milwaukee County had more than 63,000 attendees. Statewide enrollment was approximately 200,000 attendees, or 8% of households.

Across the country, as of February, more than 10 million people had signed up for the scheme, a sequel to the Emergency Broadband Benefit cut at the end of last year.

“That’s a big number, but I’ve seen estimates that up to 30 million households could be eligible,” said Doug Dawson, a North Carolina broadband consultant who has worked with cities in many States, including Wisconsin, to improve their Internet access.

Grants often cover cell phones

The ACP grant is available to households whose income is at or below 200% of the federal poverty level, or who meet other criteria such as enrolling a child in the free and subsidized school meals program. reduced.

Sometimes this will cover most, if not all, of the cost of a home internet subscription.

“But let’s face it. Even after a $30 discount, most cable company packages are still unaffordable for low-income homes,” Dawson said.

Instead, a cell phone becomes their de facto broadband provider.

Nationally, well over half of ACP subscribers have used the program to reduce their cellphone bill by $30 a month rather than applying the subsidy to wireline online service, according to Dawson.

This is allowed because these subscribers can access the Internet on their phone. But it’s not as fast or reliable, and there are often expensive data caps.

“ACP is described as helping to bridge the digital divide, and I’m not sure that’s the case,” Dawson wrote in a column.

So why did so many people use the subsidy for cellular rather than wired service?

It’s about balancing household budgets, according to Orton, and the reality is that about 95% of Americans have cell phone plans.

“If you can get $30 a month on something that you’ll have to pay for anyway, then of course you’re going to take it,” he said.

There are affordable wireline plans

Charter Spectrum has an internet plan exclusively for ACP subscribers, which after the $30 subsidy, costs the customer nothing.

The Spectrum 100 plan offers download speeds of 100 megabits per second and uploads of 10 Mbps, over a cable connection. Even for a household with multiple family members online at the same time, that would be enough for school, work, and play.

The plan includes a modem, self-installation kit and home Wi-Fi service. There are no data caps, contracts or cancellation fees, according to Charter Spectrum.

“There really is no risk,” said Gary Underwood, the group’s vice president of government relations.

AT&T also says it has a $30 per month 100 Mbps Internet plan, which after the CPA subsidy would be free to the customer.

Over the past four years, the company said it has expanded Wisconsin coverage by nearly $800 million in wired and wireless networks, including about $275 million in Milwaukee.

AT&T and Spectrum have partnered with Milwaukee’s nonprofit Digital Bridge to provide refurbished computers and digital skills classes to low-income users.

Through community partnerships, Underwood said, Spectrum has been able to bring many families online who otherwise might not have been able to afford it.

“I believe we are making great progress,” he said.

Microsoft reaches the neighborhoods

Last summer, Milwaukee was one of eight US cities chosen by Microsoft Corp. for a pilot project to bring low-cost Internet access to urban residents. Initially, in Milwaukee, the project targeted approximately 1,700 people in the Lindsay Heights neighborhood, a 110-block area from Walnut Streets to Locust and I-43 to 20th Street.

Microsoft has partnered with the nonprofit PCs for People to provide Internet access in Lindsay Heights for $15 a month. After the ACP subsidy, the service would cost eligible customers nothing.

After a slower-than-expected start, the program now has wireless transmitters mounted on two fire stations and the Innovations and Wellness Commons building near North 16th Street and West North Ave.

Around 75 households have been connected, according to PCs for People.

Volunteers hung flyers on doors advertising the new Internet option. But some people were skeptical about whether it was real.

“I think the biggest challenge for me is showing our community that this isn’t a scam,” said Thamiris Hastings, community impact manager for PCs for People in Milwaukee.

Hastings said people told him that $15-a-month internet service with no hidden fees or credit checks sounded too good to be true.

“And I understand them because I come from that kind of background,” she said.

Hastings grew up in Recife, Brazil, a city of about 1.7 million people on the southern Atlantic coast. She moved to the United States in 2016 to work as an au pair for an American family, got married, and landed in Milwaukee.

She was a nursing assistant at the hospital before taking the job at PCs for People earlier this year. She is also pursuing a Masters in Commerce at Concordia University.

Hastings said the role of PCs for People fulfills her desire to give back to the community that welcomed her as an immigrant.

“I’ve had nothing but a great experience here,” she said.

Lindsay Heights Internet has expanded to adjacent neighborhoods and now includes a partnership with the city’s Housing Authority.

“It’s good to move from a pilot program phase to a more community-based rollout,” Hastings said.

Broadband is a three-legged stool

Proponents of the program said the creation of the Hastings post was an important step in overcoming community skepticism and spreading the word.

Francesca Dawson was one of those residents who had her doubts after receiving a flyer on her doorstep saying the $15-a-month service had launched.

“I question everything,” said Dawson, who works in information technology.

But she ended up signing up and was happy with the speeds and the ability to have multiple devices online at the same time.

“It seems to be working really well,” she said.

At the height of the pandemic in 2020, Microsoft Corp. found that 340,000 people in Milwaukee County – more than one in three people – weren’t using the internet at true broadband speeds.

Moreover, there were great disparities between rich and poor neighborhoods.

Microsoft executive Vicki Robinson, a native of Milwaukee, said she met with city officials about internet expansion in Lindsay Heights.

It was slower than she would have liked, Robinson said, but it was important to get some pieces of the system in place before moving forward.

Robinson grew up near Lindsay Heights and still has family in Milwaukee. She lives in Washington, DC and is Executive Director of Microsoft’s Airband Initiative, which partners with nonprofits to bring Internet access to cities and rural areas.

Affordable Internet is a three-legged stool of access, devices, and professional training.

“You really need to have all of these things simultaneously for people to embrace and stick with them,” Robinson said.

The $14 billion Affordable Connectivity Program grew out of President Joe Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. There is no set expiration date for the $30 per month subsidy, although if it ends, the FCC is supposed to give consumers a few months notice.

Some internet service providers abused the old Emergency Broadband Benefit by enrolling unqualified households to collect what was then a $50 per month subsidy.

The companies suspected of fraud were not named by the FCC, but the agency said a handful were responsible for most of the abuses uncovered in Alaska, Florida, Arizona, California, Colorado and New York.

“Evidence shows this is not a consumer-focused fraud. Registration data directly links certain service providers and their sales agents,” the FCC Inspector General said in a memo. on duty.

Questions remain about how programs like CPA will be funded if they become permanent, or what will happen if they are suddenly discontinued.

At some point, Orton said with UW-Madison, “We’re approaching a giant cliff” with many new ways of doing things derived from the pandemic.

“We’re starting to get used to having them,” he said.

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Ryan H. Bowman