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Bridging a digital divide, subsidized internet program enrollment starts Wednesday

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A new federal program will provide low-income residents with a monthly subsidy to help pay for internet service.

The Emergency Broadband Benefit Program will provide a monthly subsidy of up to $50 to eligible residents to pay for internet services, and up to $75 for households on Native American territories.

“In today’s society and especially in the wake of the pandemic, it’s clear that internet access is no longer a luxury any longer,” said Congressman Joe Morelle, who supported the program which was passed by lawmakers in December as part of a COVID-19 relief package. “It’s a necessity required to participate in the activities of daily living.”

Anyone eligible can apply for the program starting Wednesday. Eligibility includes anyone at or below federal poverty guidelines, anyone enrolled in SNAP or Medicaid, and anyone facing financial hardship from a job loss during the pandemic.

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Organizations like Ibero-American Action League, ROC the Future, and public libraries will help people register for the program.

Language barriers have been compounded by barriers to internet and technology access, said City Councilmember Miguel Meléndez, especially when whole neighborhoods are affected by a “digital divide.”

“I urge every eligible family to take advantage of this program and we must continue to provide access to essential services like the internet to achieve equity,” Meléndez said.

While reliable internet access has been a challenge for many, Monroe County Executive Adam Bello said the pandemic has exacerbated the issue.

“We’re learning from home, our children are learning from home, we’re working from home, we’re accessing healthcare from home through telehealth services,” he said. 

Greenlight Networks is one of several approved providers that will serve the Greater Rochester area. CEO and founder Mark Murphy said the program allows Greenlight and its competitors to better serve their low-income customers.

“They will be able to get our $50 product, which is a 500 megabits per second upload and download service right now with the pandemic at no charge to them,” Murphy said. 

High speed internet is an essential service, and Murphy noted that the benefit can eliminate internet costs for some of Greenlight’s customers.

“Whether it's Greenlight or Charter or Frontier or others they may have signed up for, '' said Murphy. “The consumers are going to get to choose which services are best for them and for their families.”

According to the FCC, a household is eligible if a member of the household meets one of the following criteria:

  • Has an income that is at or below 135% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines or participates in certain assistance programs, such as SNAP, Medicaid, or Lifeline;
  • Approved to receive benefits under the free and reduced-price school lunch program or the school breakfast program, including through the USDA Community Eligibility Provision in the 2019-2020 or 2020-2021 school year;
  • Received a Federal Pell Grant during the current award year;
  • Experienced a substantial loss of income due to job loss or furlough since February 29, 2020 and the household had a total income in 2020 at or below $99,000 for single filers and $198,000 for joint filers; or
  • Meets the eligibility criteria for a participating provider's existing low-income or COVID-19 program.
Noelle E. C. Evans is WXXI's Murrow Award-winning Education reporter/producer.
April Franklin is an occasional local host of WXXI's Weekend Edition.