From homework for youngsters to telehealth for seniors, internet access is quickly becoming as important as traditional utilities like water and electric service.
The coronavirus pandemic heightened the need to be connected, but access and affordability continue to be obstacles for many to joining the online world.
Now federal dollars are being used to address the affordability barrier.
The Federal Comm-unications Commission has launched its $3.2 billion Emergency Broadband Benefit Program to help qualifying applicants pay for internet service.
The program provides a temporary discount of up to $50 a month toward broadband service for eligible households. The benefit also provides discounts up to $100 per household toward a one-time purchase of a computer, laptop or tablet, if the household contributes more than $10 but less than $50 toward its purchase from a participating broadband provider.
Those eligible for the EBB program include, among others, anyone who experienced a substantial loss of income in 2020, those who currently receive or qualify for benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and other federal programs such as free or reduced school lunch, and households with incomes at or below 135% of U.S. poverty guidelines.
At least one local internet service provider is embracing the federal help.
Connecticut-based Charter Communications, which does business locally as Spectrum, issued a news release saying it is participating in the program across its 41-state operating area.
“Through our participation in the EBB program, we are ... breaking down barriers to connectivity for American families,” Charter Executive Vice President for Government Affairs Catherine Bohigian said in a news release.
Charter is also benefitting from the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund and announced in February that it will use $1.2 million in federal support to expand its broadband service in Warren County.
Spectrum’s current service area is limited largely to the urbanized part of the county. Charter Senior Director of Government Affairs Jason Keller said the expansion will reach about 1,588 more homes in rural areas.
Likewise, Warren Rural Electric Cooperative Corp. and two partner internet providers announced in March that they are receiving about $2.3 million in RDOF funds.
That money will be used to help WRECC and partners North Central Telephone Cooperative of Lafayette, Tenn., and the Franklin Electric Plant Board reach 13,600 potential new customers in Warren, Simpson, Grayson and Edmonson counties who don’t now have access to high-speed internet.
The rush to utilize the federal funding to bring broadband service to rural areas of Warren County looks to be heating up, with Warren Fiscal Court calling a meeting for Monday to consider granting Judge-Executive Mike Buchanon authority to advertise for proposals to construct fiber to underserved areas of the county.
That could help NCTC, which is also listed on the FCC website as a participant in the EBB program, along with AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon and others.
Connected Nation, a Bowling Green-based national nonprofit organization whose goal is to expand internet access, hailed the EBB initiative.
“As a national nonprofit that has been working for 20 years to help close the digital divide, we believe this program is one step closer to helping our most vulnerable and at-risk populations access resources they need to improve their quality of life,” said Heather Gate, Connected Nation’s vice president for digital inclusion.
Connected Nation is offering information about the EBB program at connected nation.org/ebbprogram.
More information can also be found at fcc.gov/broad bandbenefit or by calling 833-511-0311.
– Follow business reporter Don Sergent on Twitter @BGDNbusiness or visit bgdailynews.com.