Federal subsidy aims to tackle Mecklenburg’s broadband gap

Federal subsidy aims to tackle Mecklenburg’s broadband gap

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

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A new federal program that makes internet service essentially free for low-income households could help some of the more than 100,000 households in Mecklenburg County that lack access.

What’s happening: The White House announced on Monday that 20 internet providers, including Spectrum and AT&T in Charlotte, have agreed to offer $30 per month high-speed internet plans for low-income families.

  • In response to the pandemic, the federal government started what’s now the Affordable Connectivity Program, an internet service subsidy to qualifying households.
  • That means that those who receive the discount and sign up for one of the internet plans offered at $30 per month would not have to pay for the service.

Why it matters: Nearly 10% of households in Mecklenburg County are without access to the internet, according to 2019 data from the North Carolina Department of Information Technology’s Division of Broadband and Digital Equity. Mecklenburg’s 2019 population was 1.1 million, per census estimates, meaning around 110,000 people lack internet access.

  • Broadband is an essential amenity in our 21st century economy. But the cost of service is a major barrier.
  • “Being able to provide (internet) to residents is only unlocking their ability to access resources and services to participate and thrive in the modern society,” says Bruce Clark, executive director of the Center for Digital Equity at Queens University of Charlotte.
Data: USAC, U.S. Census; Chart: Erin Davis/Axios Visuals

    The big picture: The pandemic laid the digital divide bare.

    Zoom out: Access to the internet is also a racial equity issue. It’s one of the four components of Mayor Vi Lyles’ Racial Equity Initiative, which aims to reduce disparities.

    • In the census tract that includes Druid Hills and J.T. Williams for example, 45% of households have no internet access, according to the state data.
    • But in a census tract that covers Chantilly and Commonwealth, that figure is just 5%.

    Who qualifies: Those whose income is at or below 200% of the Federal Poverty Level, if a member of the household participates in SNAP, Medicaid, free- and reduced-price school meals and numerous other government programs (full list here).

    • Roughly 19% of those who qualify for the federal subsidy in North Carolina have signed up, according to Clark.
    • In Mecklenburg County, 39,906 households have enrolled as of March, according to the North Carolina Department of Information Technology.
    • The goal, according to Nate Denny, deputy director of the department’s Division of Broadband and Digital Equity, is for 80% of households in the state to be subscribed to high-speed internet service, and 100% of those with school aged-children.

    What’s next: Clark’s organization is working to train digital navigators, who consist of resident and private sector volunteers, as well as a handful of paid staff, to sign residents up for the ACP. Residents can call 311 to reach a navigator.

    • To learn more about volunteering as a digital navigator, visit this link, and to sign up for the ACP, visit this link.
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