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Federal internet benefits at risk in CT. Could a state bill fill in gaps?

John Belden, sitting, and Bruce Stern add two new fiber cables for a business client in Trumbull. The installation will provide the company with more data capacity, which can make the Internet faster.
Yehyun Kim
/
CT Mirror
John Belden, sitting, and Bruce Stern add two new fiber cables for a business client in Trumbull. The installation will provide the company with more data capacity, which can make the Internet faster.

Connecticut has been building its digital infrastructure to get more households online. Those efforts rely on federal funding to help the state address these gaps, particularly in places with limited access to affordable high-speed internet.

Getting more people in the state connected was especially critical during the pandemic, when more aspects of life became virtual: tele-health appointments, online classes and jobs transitioning to remote work.

But a federal program reducing monthly internet bills and providing device subsidies for lower-income households will sunset at the end of the month if Congress does not renew funding. The Affordable Connectivity Program was implemented under the bipartisan infrastructure law, which was enacted in 2021.

Without the approval of new funds, April will be the last month of full benefits for more than 186,000 households enrolled across Connecticut. Those households will only get partial benefits for another month before funding ends after May.

The Biden administration has been pushing Congress for months to pass another $6 billion in funding to keep the program operational through the end of 2024. And Connecticut’s entire congressional delegation, which is made up of all Democrats, has similarly been advocating to keep the program running.

With budget caps in place during last month’s government funding negotiations, money for ACP was not included in the must-pass legislation. And there is currently no plan to take up a standalone bill as Congress focuses on passing stalled national security aid.

Steven Benjamin, Biden’s senior adviser for public engagement, argued that the 23 million households across the country enrolled “will lose access to affordable high speed internet and may not be able to access the benefits it brings, like access to education, telemedicine, job opportunities.”

“If they fail to pass legislation extending funding for the Affordable Connectivity Program, their constituents will lose access to this benefit in the coming weeks,” Benjamin said.

Congressional Republicans in leadership and who sit on key committees have questioned the ACP’s “effectiveness in connecting non-subscribers to the internet” compared to those who already had broadband before the program existed.

Since then, the Federal Communications Commission released a survey that found two-thirds of enrollees had inconsistent or zero connectivity before the federal program. Of that group, 80% of them said affordability was the reason.

While it is currently in congressional limbo, the Affordable Connectivity Program has enjoyed bipartisan support in the past. Nearly half of recipients across the country are military families, while about a quarter are seniors. Those groups, including individuals with disabilities and those living in rural areas, are less connected or struggle with affording monthly internet costs.

Still, advocates are looking at a bill before the Connecticut General Assembly on broadband internet service that they argue could serve as a “backstop” if the ACP goes away.

Senate Bill 3 would, among other things, require certain companies to provide internet service that is affordable. It faces opposition from a number of business groups and companies within the telecommunications industry.

“This bill is aimed to kind of deal with the uncertainty of the federal program. People would still be able to qualify if Senate Bill 3 passes to get internet access they may be relying on for work and tele-health,” said Nora Duncan, the director of AARP’s chapter in Connecticut whose group supports the bill. But “solving it here in Connecticut with this as a backup isn’t going to help the rest of the states.”

“The pandemic really shifted the way people were communicating,” Duncan added. “Many of our older members went online. They’re on fixed incomes as retirees. The pandemic made health care, social isolation, etc., such a big deal that people took steps they had not previously taken.”

Internet access and benefits across CT

Connecticut has ramped up internet access across the state but still faces issues with adoption.

According to Connecticut’s 2022 Broadband Report, more than 86% of all eligible locations in the state have a broadband internet subscription, which is attributed to the ACP and the federal program it replaced, the Emergency Broadband Benefit. But the report also pointed out that the northwestern part of the state and rural areas in eastern Connecticut “have significant concentrations of unserved locations.”

Data from that report compiled up until October 2022 showed Connecticut enrollees using ACP subsidies to purchase more than 16,000 devices. The majority of those using the benefits resided in New Haven, Hartford, Waterbury, Norwich and Bridgeport.

Households that are “unserved” are those that cannot access download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second and upload speeds of at least 3 megabits per second. Locations that are “underserved” are ones that do not reach download speeds of at least 100 megabits per second and upload speeds of at least 20 megabits per second.

In addition to the Affordable Connectivity Program, the state has gotten support from other federal funding streams: $144 million through the infrastructure law’s Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program and a nearly $43 million grant through the American Rescue Plan Act’s Capital Projects Fund to create the Connecticut Broadband Infrastructure Program.

Last month, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration accepted Connecticut’s draft “digital equity plan” to help residents who lack connected devices and technical skills as well as to improve affordability. The plan is also implemented as part of the federal infrastructure law.

To help address those disparities, Connecticut received nearly $109 million from the Affordable Connectivity Program. That funding supported a total of 186,531 households, according to March enrollment numbers from the FCC.

Enrollees have gotten discounts up to $30 a month or up to $75 a month on qualifying tribal lands to help with their internet bills with participating providers. They also received a one-time discount of $100 to purchase a computer, laptop or tablet.

Households across the state and country qualified if they had an income of 200% or below the federal poverty line as well as recipients of Medicaid, nutrition assistance programs like SNAP, or free or reduced school breakfast or lunch.

One in eight households across Connecticut are currently receiving those federal subsidies for internet service.

The 1st District has the highest enrollment of the five congressional districts in Connecticut, with an estimated 17% of households using the program. U.S. Rep. John Larson's district is based in Hartford and covers much of the central part of the state in Hartford, Litchfield and Middlesex counties.

And almost half of Connecticut enrollees in the program are adults 50 and older, according to research from AARP.

The FCC has a wind-down plan in place that began earlier this year. In late January, ACP participants were first notified about the phase out of the program. The agency stopped accepting new applications and enrollment in February.

Enrollees will get partial subsidies in May before the program completely runs out. Next month, the maximum reimbursement will be $14 or $35 for qualifying tribal lands. And the connected device benefit will get slashed to $47.

While ACP benefits will run out absent congressional action, some households will still get reduced or discounted monthly internet bills depending on their subscriptions. Internet service providers like Xfinity are advertising a couple of lower cost plans that subscribers can use if the federal benefits are no longer an option.

Could CT tackle internet affordability without federal assistance?

State lawmakers in Connecticut are hoping to take up the issue before the end of the legislative session on May 8.

In addition to affordable internet access, S.B. 3 would mandate the disclosure of certain fees, prohibit "deceptive and excessive" fees, require net neutrality so providers treat all web traffic and content the same, and prohibit municipal agencies from using drones made or assembled by certain foreign entities.

The bill defines affordability as charging no more than $40 a month with a minimum speed requirement of 25 megabits per second for downloads and 3 megabits per second for uploads for people with certain incomes or those who use qualifying public assistance programs. The legislation also sets a goal of 2028 for 95% of the eligible population to have access to affordable internet service.

S.B. 3 was first reported favorably out of the Joint Committee on General Law and is expected to be favorably reported out of the Judiciary Committee later on Monday. From there, the bill would head to the Senate for a vote.

"There’s more of a thirst I think on the part of state legislatures to actually start taking a more aggressive action on policy in this area," Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, said in an interview.

"It’s incumbent upon us here in the states … to look at that and say how we can continue that in some way, shape or form," Duff added.

Critics of the bill oppose various sections of S.B. 3, ranging from net neutrality to rate regulation.

Verizon took specific issue with the affordable internet mandates. David Lamendola, senior director of government affairs for Verizon in Connecticut and New York, testified in February that renewing the Affordable Connectivity Program should be a top priority.

Providers like Verizon say they have already taken voluntary steps to reduce costs for those who need it. But they are pushing back against a provision they believe would put the responsibility on them to figure out who is eligible for affordable internet.

"We respectfully suggest better paths to achieving broadband affordability, including efforts by this body to do everything it can to preserve a vital federal broadband affordability program likely to expire," Lamendola testified. "Many of these affordability programs have been even more effective in combination with the Affordable Connectivity Program."

"If proving eligibility is placed on the providers, that not only imposes a major new obligation but also would require consumers to share private tax and income information with their provider in order to obtain broadband service," he added.

Some Republicans on the Judiciary Committee voiced concerns about provisions like on net neutrality as well as the prohibition of drones from China or Russia that would start in October 2025. They argued the latter could financially hurt law enforcement agencies and other public entities who use drones in emergency situations, particularly at a time when American drones are not as up to speed.

"I think that this bill needs an awful lot of work, so at this time, despite advocates’ desire to see some of these points go forward regarding cable access, I’m going to be voting no," state Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield said at Monday's committee hearing.

Connecticut's Department of Energy and Environmental Protection "generally supports the concepts" of S.B. 3, according to February testimony from Commissioner Katie Dykes. She questioned whether the $40 a month requirement can be sustained in the long term, noting that it is not tied to inflation and is unsure if the price includes taxes and fees.

She also said she wanted clarity on the language that the "requirement that qualified broadband internet access providers would have to be both doing business with the state and with any state agency for Section 2 to apply."

But supporters are hoping that the state can take the reins on broadband internet service with Congress unlikely to act.

"This is not a red or a blue issue, especially when you look at rural America and their reliance on this," Duncan of AARP CT said. "The Connecticut legislature knows that they’re probably potentially more effective at this than Congress at this point in time, so going ahead and promoting legislation that would essentially be a backstop is wise."

The Connecticut Mirror/Connecticut Public Radio federal policy reporter position is made possible, in part, by funding from the Robert and Margaret Patricelli Family Foundation and Robert Jaeger.

This story was originally published by the Connecticut Mirror.

Lisa Hagen is CT Public and CT Mirror’s shared Federal Policy Reporter. Based in Washington, D.C., she focuses on the impact of federal policy in Connecticut and covers the state’s congressional delegation. Lisa previously covered national politics and campaigns for U.S. News & World Report, The Hill and National Journal’s Hotline.

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