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25,000 low-income Vermonters may lose internet subsidy in April: 'Without that Wi-Fi, I'm sunk'

A worker is lifted by a truck to work on telecommunications lines
Delmaine Donson/Getty Images
Associated Press File
About 25,000 low-income Vermonters have received a subsidy toward internet access through the Affordable Connectivity Program.

If Congress doesn’t act, a $14 billion federal program that subsidizes high speed internet for low-income households will run out of money in April. More than 25,000 Vermonters will be impacted — nearly half of whom are 50 or older.

Rutland resident Laurie King lives in what she calls a hollow: “So cell service down here is tough.”

The 77-year-old is a retired preschool teacher, and her income qualified her for the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP). King says it helped her get a new router and provides her with a $30 per month discount on her high-speed internet bill. "It's been great," she says.

Nationally, one in six households participate in the program, which stopped accepting new enrollments on Feb 7. Despite broad bipartisan support, Congress has been unable to agree on extending it, and funding runs out in April, which worries King.

“Without that Wi-Fi, I’m sunk," King says. "I don’t have my landline any more, so it’s going to be a big deal. A big step backward.”

(If you're enrolled in the Affordable Connectivity Program and have questions about the program, click here.)

Christine Hallquist is executive director of Vermont’s Community Broadband Board, which was created to help the state achieve affordable, universal, high-speed internet access. She says despite the federal program’s success, it’s unlikely state lawmakers will want to pick up the tab for it.

“If you look at the cost of the program, it would be $9.3 million to handle the people that are currently enrolled in the program," Hallquist says.

She says the price tag would balloon to $22 million if everyone who qualified participated. And even if state lawmakers agreed to fund it, Hallquist says it would be impossible to get the program up and running by May.

In Washington, a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Sen. Peter Welch, introduced legislation to extend the program’s funding through the end of the year. Welch’s office says there’s a lot of urgency around it. But it remains in committee and it’s still only a temporary fix.

Hallquist says that means service providers will have to figure out what to do next, and she says disconnecting customers will be disruptive and costly. “The incremental cost of some of carrying these low-income people is not that significant, because once the network's there — you’ve built your business plan around revenue," Hallquist says. "So I would challenge the internet service providers to continue the program.”

Joel Shadle, a spokesperson for Comcast, wouldn’t say how many of their Vermont customers benefit from the federal subsidy. But he says if the program is not continued, those customers will still have low-cost internet options, one as low as $9.95 per month. “Our Internet Essentials Program is going to be more than enough for what you need to check your emails, surf the web, do video conferencing with friends or family, or your health care provider or your school," Shadle says.

He says they’ll also be introducing promotions for customers coming off the federal program.

"That is really the thing that's going to move this issue, is the stories of how people have been able to get connected."
Paige Hartsell, NEK Broadband

Christa Shute is the executive director of NEK Broadband, which provides internet to towns in the Northeast Kingdom. It’s one of 10 communications union districts in Vermont. They’re nonprofit municipal organizations that provide Wi-Fi to hard-to-serve areas.

A much smaller number of union district customers are enrolled in ACP.

Shute says, "In the Northeast Kingdom, the NEK Broadband customers that are no longer getting the ACP subsidy of $30 a month will receive that same subsidy from NEK Broadband, and we've committed to do that for at least six months, and then we'll revisit it at that time."

Paige Hartsell works with Shute at NEK Broadband. Before the ACP enrollment was stopped, she helped low-income Vermonters apply to the federal program.

She encourages anyone worried about losing their internet to reach out to her or their local social services agency to share their story. "Lawmakers, the FCC, Washington needs to hear from people," she says. “Because that is really the thing that's going to move this issue, is the stories of how people have been able to get connected, how people have been able to stay in touch with family, how people have been able to take classes online, start businesses.”

A man speaks at a podium surrounded by signs that say "affordable, high-speed internet" and "investing in America"
Manuel Balce Ceneta
Associated Press
President Joe Biden speaks in Raleigh, N.C., Jan. 18, 2024. The White House is pressing Congress to extend a subsidy program that helps one in six families afford internet and represents a key element of Biden's promise to deliver reliable broadband service to every American household.

Hartsell says she and Shute were in Philadelphia last week attending a national conference and the looming end of the federal program was the hot topic. “Thirteen hundred people from across the country were talking about it," says Hartsell. "Everybody is aware of the tidal wave that is coming if we don’t get more funding and the impact it’s going to have on people’s lives.”

Ellie DeVilliers heads Maple Broadband, which provides internet to 20 towns in Addison County. She’s also president of Vermont’s Communications Union Districts Association. She says if lawmakers fail to extend ACP, Maple Broadband will also offer its enrolled customers a $30 per month subsidy.

But long-term, DeVilliers believes Vermont needs a more sustainable approach to ensure everyone has access to affordable high-speed internet. She says that’s part of the digital equity planning work currently underway in the state. “We don't have a plan right now," says DeVilliers. "But we're aware that there's a problem. And there's a lot of really smart people who are really motivated in solving it that are talking about it and trying to figure it out.”

But she admits that's not very helpful if you're worried you’ll lose your broadband in April.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

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