Program gives people $30 a month for internet, but less than a third of eligible Coloradans take part

A federal program offering $30 to $75 a month to offset the cost of high-speed internet service has attracted less than 30% of eligible users in Colorado since its launch in January.

But that fraction includes 132,060 Colorado households that have signed up for the Affordable Connectivity Program, as of May 9. The program, which began last year to help low-income families pay for internet access, is available to those eligible for government assistance programs, such as food stamps, free school meals or discounted and Medicaid. There are approximately 1.4 million Coloradans on Medicaid.

The $14 billion program, funded by the trillion-dollar infrastructure bill passed by Congress last year, replaced the Emergency Broadband Benefit, which provided $50 a month to low-income families. EBB ended Dec. 31 and ACP took over as a permanent replacement, offering $30 to most participants and $75 to those living on tribal land. Discounts on devices were part of both programs.

“The bipartisan infrastructure bill is a big win for Colorado, especially because it will connect every home to high-speed internet. But a connection is useless if you can’t afford the service,” Senator John Hickenlooper said in an email. “We are working to spread the word and urge all Coloradians who think they might be qualified to go to GetInternet.gov.”

A marketing campaign started this week to help spread the word. President Joe Biden held a press conference on Monday to announce that 20 internet companies covering 80% of America have agreed to provide 100 megabit service for less than $30 in order for the grant to make internet service free.

Comcast, one of Colorado’s largest internet service providers, was among the companies that cut costs. Much of its plan for low-income people targets urban areas where the digital divide is a result of cost, not service availability. The Essential Internet plan — which is now at 50 megabits per second but has held steady at $9.95 for years — has added a “Plus” tier, offering 100 Mbps for $29.99.

“If you apply ACP credit, then it’s free,” said Leslie Oliver, a Comcast spokeswoman. “From our perspective, this addresses some of the affordability issues that are why people aren’t logging on.”

Comcast has extended its $9.95 Internet service for low-income households to add faster service for triple the price. But the new Internet Essentials Plus, at $29.99, is free for eligible customers approved for the federal Affordable Connectivity Program, which provides $30 a month to pay for Internet service. (Handout)

Dozens of community Internet service providers in Colorado participate in the ACP and many have their own subsidized programs. Fort Collins Connexion, a city-operated internet service that launched the service in 2019, created a digital equity program in 2020. Low-income residents can get gigabit internet access for $19.95, Erin said. Shanley, Connexion’s Head of Broadband Marketing.

“I was actually just pointing out to my editor today that Comcast, Verizon and a few others are like, ‘We’ll give you 100 megabits for $30,'” Shanley said. “We’re giving away 1,000 megabits for $20.”

With ACP, Connexion’s digital equity service is free. Connexion also pre-approves clients so they don’t have to apply separately on the federal site.

Early hiccups

So far, CPA enrollment exceeds EBB by 30% in Colorado. This may be due to deployment complications when launching EBB. Consumers had to be approved by the Universal Service Administrative Company. But entering the information had to be exact, like typing “Street” instead of “St”. — otherwise, the application generated an error.

The registration process has since been simplified, said Sarah Fishering, of Clearnetworx, a fiber internet service provider in Montrose. “Literally, I saw a client do it in less than 15 minutes.”

These are some of the behind-the-scenes processes that haven’t worked out so smoothly. Ciello, which provides broadband service in the San Luis Valley, can’t get an answer as to why two ACP customers were suddenly delisted in April, so Ciello hasn’t been reimbursed. .

“They (customers) didn’t know why and we didn’t know why,” said Jennifer Alonzo, marketing and sales coordinator at Ciello. “We still gave them the credit even though we won’t be refunded. … It’s hard to get anyone’s support. We contacted something via email and I think it took five weeks to get a response.

A worker installs wired fiber for Clearnetworx, a Montrose-based broadband provider. (Provided by Clearnetworx)

Fishering said family-owned Clearnetworx had similar issues with EBB and was unsure how to get reimbursed after covering the cost for customers. However, getting into EBB early on helped attract customers who continued on ACP.

“We didn’t have to throw the baby out with the bathwater and we can just move forward with a process that we now know works,” she said. “It gives us the opportunity to really communicate a lot about the program and to benefit as many people as possible.”

For consumers who do not have or have limited internet access or have difficulty applying online, there may be in-person options. Comcast encourages potential customers to stop by a Comcast Xfinity store.

Clearnetworx said it has been helping customers in person since EBB launched.

“We have clients who may have more technology challenges or maybe they really have no way of being able to access this online application process,” Fishering said. “We have them sit down with a (customer service representative) in person – it’s a requirement of the program – and go through the question-and-answer process, kind of an interview style.”

Not a profit generator

Internet service in sparsely populated areas is slow, expensive, and offers few options. In the state’s least populated counties, there was only one household per county registered with the CPA as of May 9, according to federal data.

And in these counties, satellite internet may be the only option. Hughes Net, which participates in ACP, costs $64.99 per month for the company’s 15GB plan offering download speeds of 25 Mbps, according to the company. There are also additional costs for equipment.

It’s certainly not a new revenue stream for internet businesses, said Monroe Johnson, Ciello’s chief technology officer.

“We do it as community service and because of who we are,” Johnson said. “It actually increased costs for the supplier without any additional money.”

San Luis Valley Rural Electric Cooperative and Ciello install internet in the home of an RE-1 student in the Mountain Valley School District. The district has partnered with the co-op and Ciello to install internet for about 15 families so students can complete homework remotely. (Travis Garoutte, Special for The Colorado Sun)

Ciello’s cheapest plan is $42.95 for 25 Mbps up and down for fiber users. This means that ACP customers still pay around $13 per month, although some customers opt for faster and more expensive plans because they can benefit from the ACP advantage.

Local providers like Ciello are already working with community organizations to provide internet. The company has installed Wi-Fi hotspots at boys’ and girls’ clubs in Alamosa and other locations in the San Luis Valley.

Clearnetworx has what it calls a Student Connection Program which is open to school district staff and students. They can get a $5-$10 discount, which would be on top of the ACP benefit, and he has a different program that offers free internet to eligible students for a free or reduced lunch, which is considered a measure of poverty.

And Live Wire Networks is working with the Boulder Valley School District to provide internet service to any family that had a student on the free or reduced lunch program. He also invested early on to become a Lifeline provider, so he receives federal funds to serve low-income mobile and voice customers.

It still costs company staff time and effort to process ACP complaints and answer questions, but it matches what they are already doing in the community to build better broadband and attract new customers, a said Jim Hinsdale, president of Live Wire.

“We want to contribute to the community. And there is good economic sense in doing so,” Hinsdale said. “Especially working with schools, it was a free service. We’re trying to find a way to monetize this arrangement, because we have to put a lot of money into towers and conduits and build them. It helps balance that.

How to Apply for the Affordable Connectivity Program:

  • Provides $30 per month (or $75 for those living on tribal land) to offset internet costs
  • Eligibility is based on income at or below 200% of the federal poverty guidelines (see chart) or if a household member receives government assistance, including Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or other programs.
  • Consumers can see if they qualify for the Affordable Connectivity Program by visiting GetInternet.gov.
  • Find a participating Internet Service Provider: affordableconnectivity.gov/companies-near-me
  • ISPs typically sign up new ACP customers and process claims monthly for reimbursement. Customers typically see the $30 discount on the invoice.

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