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With internet subsidies drying up, Eastern Washington broadband users call on Congress to replenish funds

By James Hanlon and Orion Donovan Smith, James Hanlon and Orion Donovan Smith, The Spokesman-Review
Published: November 13, 2023, 6:00am

WELLPINIT — Living on the Spokane Reservation, like in other rural areas where jobs and services can be hard to come by, getting an internet connection made a world of difference for Thornton Allen.

The father of two said broadband access has helped his kids, 12 and 14, solve complicated math problems and find other information to do their homework. When he recently needed to fix the brakes on his car, he researched how to do the work himself and saved hundreds of dollars.

The rugged terrain on the reservation makes installing broadband infrastructure more costly, but with a poverty rate nearly triple that of Washington state, many members of the Spokane Tribe and others who live there can’t afford the rates internet service providers charge to cover that higher cost. Since the COVID-19 pandemic made online access more important than ever, the federal government has sought to solve that problem with several programs, one of which helped connect Allen’s house through his kids’ school in Wellpinit.

“It really helps out,” said Allen, who is out of work and receives aid through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. “There’s no way I’d be able to afford our Wi-Fi at home right now.”

When that program ended in August, Allen’s household was automatically eligible for another one, the Affordable Connectivity Program, that covers their whole $70-a-month internet bill. Congress established the ACP in November 2021 as part of a landmark infrastructure package that passed with bipartisan support, providing $14.2 billion to expand an emergency broadband program that began in 2020, but those funds are running out.

On Oct. 25, President Joe Biden asked Congress for another $6 billion to fund the program through the end of 2024, but despite bipartisan support, it appears that lawmakers may let the funds dry up amid disagreements over the best way to solve the problem of affordable internet access.

“I cannot overstate the urgency of the situation that we’re in,” said Kathryn de Wit, director of the broadband access initiative at the nonprofit Pew Charitable Trusts. “Customers could be getting notice that this program is ending around Thanksgiving.”

It isn’t clear exactly when the money will run out, she said, but internet service providers and other ACP advocates have been pushing Congress to extend the program before the end of the year. Without more funds, they warn, they will have to start notifying customers like Allen that the subsidy will end sometime in 2024.

The Spokane Tribe’s internet provider, Sp’q’n’i? Broadband Services, transmits wireless internet from four towers across the reservation to about 300 households. Half of those customers receive ACP benefits — a much higher rate than the state as a whole, where only about 28% of eligible households are enrolled in the program, according to federal data.

“It’s been a true blessing here, because sometimes people can’t even afford to keep the lights on,” Brodie Ford, Sp’q’n’i? Broadband’s network engineer, said of the ACP.

Households that earn less than 200% of the federal poverty line — about $29,000 a year for one person or $60,000 for a family of four — are eligible for $30 per month through the ACP to help pay for internet service. Starting in August, the Federal Communications Commission increased that subsidy to $75 per month on tribal lands and other rural areas where internet costs are especially high.

Sp’q’n’i? Broadband, which operates with a four-person team under the tribe’s public works department, charges a maximum rate of $70 per month so internet access is free for those who qualify for the ACP. Although most of their customers are Spokane Tribe members, households don’t need to have a tribal affiliation to qualify for the subsidy as long as they live on tribal land.

“It is a huge sigh of relief for them when they hear they can use this service for free,” Ford said. “It’s one less expense to worry about every month.”

Now, the Sp’q’n’i? Broadband team is preparing customers for the possibility that they could lose the subsidy in the coming months.

“It’s mind-blowing why that would happen, after signing up so many people for a service that is benefiting them tremendously, to suddenly end it,” billing manager Leslie Hardwick said.

More than 21 million U.S. households benefit from the ACP, including nearly 320,000 in Washington and more than 48,600 in Idaho, according to federal data.

In Spokane County, about 20,000 households were enrolled last year, although the number of eligible households is much higher, said Ariane Schmidt, director of the county’s broadband development authority, BROADLINC.

Schmidt said a lack of awareness and difficulty signing up for the program have prevented more people from taking advantage of the opportunity, in addition to the fact that not all internet providers have opted into the program.

In September, BROADLINC and other local government, community and industry groups across Washington sent a letter to the state’s congressional delegation asking them to support more funds for the program.

In the letter, the advocates pointed out that the ACP plays an important role in the success of broadband infrastructure projects Congress created in 2021 through the American Rescue Plan Act and the bipartisan infrastructure bill, by assuring internet providers that they will get a return on investment even in low-income and rural areas. Letting the funds run out, they warned, “could severely impact the ability to operate, maintain, and upgrade these networks over time.”

In August, a bipartisan group of 45 House lawmakers called on congressional leaders to extend ACP funding. In October, 32 Democratic senators sent a letter to make the same request. Neither of Washington’s senators signed that letter, but Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat who controls federal spending as chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, told The Spokesman-Review she supports Biden’s request to extend the ACP “so that families who rely on it today aren’t left in the lurch.”

“There is no doubt that broadband access is absolutely essential,” Murray said in a statement, “and the federal government has an important role to play in making sure that every family, no matter their income, can get the high-speed internet access they need to do everything from get an education to hold down a job or access vital medical and mental health services.”

Yet two other key lawmakers — who happen to represent Eastern Washington and lead panels with jurisdiction over internet policy — have reservations about keeping the program afloat.

A spokeswoman for Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Democrat who chairs the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, said Congress established the ACP as an emergency measure during the pandemic and pointedly declined to voice support for Biden’s request to extend it.

While Cantwell “supports the president” and organizations that have called for the program to continue, “who recognize that emergency connectivity is critical in today’s digital age,” spokeswoman Ansley Lacitis said the senator is “committed to finding long-term solutions to internet access and affordability,” suggesting she favors a different strategy.

In a statement, Lacitis said Cantwell supports the government’s Enabling Middle Mile Broadband Infrastructure program, which aims to connect local networks to regional and national ones, and efforts to improve maps to better inform decisions on federal broadband spending. Those investments, she said, would increase competition and lower costs in the long run.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Spokane Republican who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, echoed the idea that other programs could make for more targeted and long-term solutions to improve affordable internet access.

“In Congress, we can and must do more to improve access to broadband and make it more affordable, especially for families and businesses in rural Eastern Washington,” she said in a statement. “That starts with making sure we are using the most accurate (Federal Communications Commission) maps, targeting resources to truly unserved communities.”

The Spokane Republican’s office said she is apprehensive about supporting additional ACP funding without first changing eligibility requirements to make sure the subsidy goes to those who truly can’t afford broadband access, while protecting against fraud and wasteful spending. As chair of the panel charged with oversight of telecommunications policy, McMorris Rodgers has supported legislation to improve coordination among federal agencies involved in broadband funding.

In a report released in May, the Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan watchdog agency, found more than 130 federal broadband programs administered by 15 different agencies. Broadband is the main purpose of 25 of those programs and 13 of them overlap, the GAO reported.

The decision facing Congress over the ACP is part of a broader pattern, as a raft of popular yet costly programs enacted during the pandemic to give aid directly to Americans face expiration.

Even Murray, while backing Biden’s request to extend the ACP, voiced support for longer-term solutions, including a bipartisan effort to reform the Universal Service Fund, which uses fees paid by telecommunications companies to subsidize access for low-income Americans.

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Ford said internet subsidies like the ACP should be considered for the long run for everyone. Internet access, he argued, is as necessary as other utilities like plumbing and electricity.

“In order to be successful in this lifetime, you have to have and be connected to the internet in some way,” he said. “I think that would be a huge step for growth for us as a nation to recognize that.”

Sp’q’n’i? Broadband’s towers can’t reach everyone on the reservation. Their ultimate goal is to install fiber optic cable, which is faster and more reliable, to every home.

De Wit said critics are right to say the federal government spends a lot of money on broadband access, but she argued that the ACP is an important temporary fix until those efforts come to fruition. Letting the program lapse, she added, would also have a chilling effect on internet service providers who may think twice about participating in infrastructure programs because they fear federal support wouldn’t last.

As the question looms of whether the ACP will lapse, Schmidt is thinking about ways to make up for it locally so every household can access the internet.

“If the ACP isn’t the long-term answer, then what is?” Schmidt said. “That’s what we’re asking right now.”

Reporting conducted for this article was completed with funding from a Center for Rural Strategies and Grist grant program.