Online learning. Job searches. Telehealth appointments. Online banking. Remote work. All of these activities can change someone’s quality of life, and all of them require a reliable internet connection.
In Wayne County approximately 9% of residents don’t have an internet connection at all, and of those who do only 57% are satisfied with their connection. That’s according to a survey of over 1,500 residents conducted by the Wayne County Broadband Task Force, a group working on improving the community’s internet infrastructure.
The task force says that median internet speeds in Wayne County aren’t fast enough to qualify as broadband access as defined by the FCC. Acacia St. John, task force convenor and program director at Forward Wayne County, says many parts of the county don’t even have the option of purchasing a fast connection because no providers offer one yet.
She hopes that will change soon. “[The providers] do have plans to expand in different areas of the county with fiber, which provides the fastest speeds,” she said. Federal funds may help that expansion, and the group will be monitoring that progress. “We want to make sure that the dollars go toward the most needed areas in the county,” St. John said.
Challenges with access, affordability and available speeds are a concern in an increasingly digital economy, where workers are expected to have digital skills. In its “Digital Inclusion Plan,” the Task Force notes that “the majority of new jobs require digital skills no matter the income level. Our workforce needs to possess these skills, so our communities can take advantage of job opportunities down the road.”
The plan being released aims to help make that a reality over the next five years.
It outlines four goals focused on improving access to the internet while making it more affordable, and improving digital skills among residents and organizations. Action items include projects like community education, additional research, providing training, and connecting residents with existing opportunities to improve or subsidize the cost of their broadband access.
The plan document also acknowledges that government and economic development entities will play a key role, with the need for incentives, policies and programs that encourage local investment in infrastructure to support the needs of residents and businesses.
Even though the task force is guiding work that will take years to complete, St. John says that residents can get started improving their own connection situation today.
“All internet providers are a part of the Affordable Connectivity Program. When residents talk to providers, they need to ask about discounted pricing,” St. John said, referring to an FCC program that provides a discount of up to $30 per month toward internet service for eligible households.
There’s also a developing Indiana Connectivity Program that aims to help those without access to internet service, or where speeds are below the broadband threshold. Residents and businesses can sign up for consideration at https://www.in.gov/ocra/broadband/icp/ and then service providers can apply for state funding to help get service in place.
More information about Forward Wayne County’s work to improve local connectivity and other quality of life updates is available online at https://forwardwaynecounty.org/help-wayne-county/
Who is eligible for discounted internet access?
According to the FCC website https://www.fcc.gov/acp, a household is eligible for the Affordable Connectivity Program if the household income is at or below 200% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines, or if a member of the household meets at least one of the criteria below:
- Received a Federal Pell Grant during the current award year;
- Meets the eligibility criteria for a participating provider’s existing low-income internet program;
- Participates in one of these assistance programs:
- Free and Reduced-Price School Lunch Program or School Breakfast Program, including at U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Community Eligibility Provision schools.
- Federal Housing Assistance, including:
- Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) Program (Section 8 Vouchers)
- Project-Based Rental Assistance (PBRA)/Section 202/ Section 811
- Public Housing
- Affordable Housing Programs for American Indians, Alaska Natives or Native Hawaiians
- Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
- Veterans Pension or Survivor Benefits
A version of this article appeared in the April 5 2023 print edition of the Western Wayne News.