Exclusive: White House touts 1 million affordable broadband program sign-ups

White House officials are calling it an important milestone and a concrete example of the administration’s efforts to lower costs for Americans amid high inflation. It will take some time for many of the other infrastructure projects funded by the bipartisan bill — new roads and bridges, for example — to come to full fruition due to planning and approval processes and getting shovels in the ground. But the connectivity program is a rare effort yielding nearly immediate and tangible benefits, a critical win the administration can tout ahead of midterm elections this November.

“That’s about lowering costs and giving people opportunity. The effort was very aggressive. It’s happened over the past couple of months. It represents hundreds of millions of dollars in cost saving for American families,” Mitch Landrieu, the former New Orleans mayor now tasked with implementing the infrastructure bill for the White House, said in an interview with CNN. “And it’s because everybody put their shoulder to the wheel. And every one of the federal agencies reached out to all of our folks across the country and worked hard to continue to sign up Americans, so it’s a great milestone that we’ve reached.”

The program provides eligible households a $30 monthly credit toward the cost of their internet service plan, or a $75 monthly credit for households living on Tribal lands. American households with an income at or below 200% of the poverty level are eligible, as well as any household with at least one member who participates in Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Federal Pell Grants, and other programs.

One administration official estimated that a staggering 40% of American households are eligible for the credit. Nearly 13 million households have signed up so far, including a million since President Joe Biden and Harris launched the GetInternet.gov push at a May 9 event at the White House, a 35% increase.

“We have a ways to go before we get the entirety of the eligible population. But that’s why we are continuing to press so hard on this. Every single household that we sign up, that’s securing $360 worth of annual savings for them. And in many cases, it may be the difference between not having internet at all, and having high speed internet, which provides all sorts of benefits,” National Economic Council deputy director Bharat Ramamurti told CNN.

Advocates call the program a success so far.

Ross Lieberman, the senior vice president of government affairs at ACA Connects, an advocacy group lobbying on behalf of small and medium-sized fixed broadband internet providers, called it an “unqualified success story.”

“We have new people subscribing that didn’t previously subscribe. … It’s also lowered the costs for some people that already subscribed, right, that became eligible through this program and that’s helped them in their in the current environment. It’s helped them better afford all the things that they need to afford as of today, so I think it’s without a doubt a success,” Lieberman said, noting that enrollments continue to grow month after month.

Broadband providers — including both larger providers and more than 300 members of ACA Connects, many of which are in smaller markets and rural areas — are participating in the program, and many reduced their prices or raised speeds for those eligible, Lieberman said.

“Instead of the typical finger-pointing that happens in Washington when there’s a problem, in this case, stakeholders have come together on an effective solution and now working together to solve it for all Americans in every part of the country,” he said.

Shirley Bloomfield, the CEO of NCTA — The Rural Broadband Association, told CNN that the program will both help build networks but also ensure “that people can actually utilize these networks.” Many of the independent telecommunications companies Bloomfield represents participated in the pandemic-era Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, and the Affordable Connectivity Program takes a step toward building on that connectivity for those who need it.

“Broadband access in rural areas is already expensive because you just don’t have as many subscribers to spread the cost among. So having this kind of a program is going to be really critical,” Bloomfield said.

The disparities between Americans who had high-speed internet and those who did not have been put in sharp relief during the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly for students needing high-speed internet for virtual learning. Getting more Americans internet access — and making it more affordable to those who already have it — is a “top priority” for the White House, Ramamurti and Landrieu said.

There are challenges in reaching Americans to inform them about the program and their eligibility, and the White House is still working to spread the word. There has been significant sign-up engagement through direct mail and text messaging, Ramamurti said. And the Department of Education, for example, will alert all current Pell Grant recipients of their eligibility via email this summer.

Harris on Thursday is sending letters to all 50 governors “encouraging them to spread the word in their states to enroll,” Harris’ senior adviser for communications Herbie Ziskend said.

The letter, obtained by CNN, includes step-by-step guidance on best practices and ways states can help with outreach.

“Our administration is doubling down on our enrollment push and we hope you will continue your work to sign up households in your state,” Harris writes.

In Massachusetts, for instance, the commonwealth texted people they believed were eligible through the SNAP program, which led to a doubled enrollment rate in the following days, according to Ramamurti. Officials hope that other states will follow that lead and come up with other new solutions.

Bloomfield suggested that, much like efforts to educate Americans on Covid-19 vaccines through their healthcare providers, there should be more “tools in the hands of broadband providers that are out in the community” to help encourage sign-ups.

Biden announced shortly after taking office during a Joint Address to Congress that he had tasked Harris with helping to advocate for broadband infrastructure funding.

“She took that assignment, traveled the country, met with providers and Americans, and convened lawmakers, and worked to get this into the final bill,” Ziskend said, adding that Harris previously sponsored the Accessible Affordable Broadband Act while she was in the Senate.

Another White House official noted that Harris was personally struck by the divide exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic for the nation’s students. A lack of broadband accessibility led to learning loss, a lack of opportunity, and longer-term educational impacts for many young Americans, the official said.

The bipartisan infrastructure package, passed in November 2021, included a $65 billion federal investment in broadband.

During a trip to a community center in Charlotte, North Carolina, Thursday, Harris will meet with people enrolled in the connectivity program at a local community center and deliver remarks on the investment, Ziskend said.

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