Who qualifies for cheaper internet? Schools help get the word out

Published 8:00 am Friday, December 2, 2022

Schools in Buckingham, Cumberland and Prince Edward counties want to get the word out. Some families in the region can get cheaper internet, thanks to a federal program.

The Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) is a benefit set up through the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Under the plan, eligible households can receive $30 off their monthly internet bill. These households can also receive a one-time discount of up to $100 for a laptop, tablet or desktop computer from participating providers.

Schools are working to get the word out because this could benefit students whose family might not otherwise be able to afford a laptop or similar equipment.

According to Cumberland County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Chip Jones, the notice went up on the district’s food service page as students who qualify for free or reduced lunch may qualify.

“This program will provide savings on broadband connections,” said Jones.

WHO QUALIFIES?

That’s the big question here. Who qualifies for the program? If your household income is at or below 200% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines, you qualify. Also, if one member of the family met any of the criteria we’ll list below, you also qualify.

That includes anyone who:

• Received a Federal Pell Grant during the current year

• Received free or reduced lunch

• Has Medicaid or SNAP

• Received a Section 8 Housing Voucher

• Lives in public housing

To enroll or learn more, visit AffordableConnectivity.gov. Those eligible can contact their preferred participating provider to choose a plan and have the discount applied to their bill.

BROADBAND PROGRESS

For some students and their families, the problem isn’t just cost. It’s also about access. The journal Governing found in a 2021 report that while 98 percent of residents in Virginia cities and suburbs have access to high-speed internet, the same isn’t true in rural areas. Nearly one-third of rural Virginians still struggle with lower speeds. An estimated 11% have no access to any kind of internet service, according to a 2019 Commonwealth Connect report by the governor’s office.

Work is being done to address that, as The Herald has covered this fall. But to be clear, residents need to be patient, officials say. This is the first step in a project that will take several years to complete.

“We are not (even) 10% completed,” said Prince Edward County Administrator Doug Stanley. “Part of that is due to putting conduit in (the) ground and then having to come back for installation of fiber. We are really a few months into a 4 ½ year project.”

Todd Fortune echoes that assessment. Fortune, who works as deputy director for the Commonwealth Regional Council, says Kinex is currently laying fiber down in the western portion of Prince Edward County, moving south/southeast toward Lunenburg County. This phase of the project alone is expected to take up to 12 months to complete.

For this project, Kinex is working with Cumberland, Lunenburg and Prince Edward counties with the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative (VATI) grant that is currently set to run through June 2025.

For Buckingham, the county is working with Central Virginia Electric Cooperative (CVEC) and the Firefly Fiber Broadband to bring service to the area. According to Galen R. Creekmore, of CVEC, they have added 872 new service extensions in the Mt. Rush substation area and 592 in the Centenary service area with the remaining 280 hopefully wrapped up in the next few months.

“As of today, about 4,200 Buckingham homes and businesses have access to the fiber network available to all CVEC electric service locations and delivering reliable broadband service at up to gigabit speeds,” said Creekmore. “Over 2,200 locations have signed up for service, and we expect this number will continue to grow as others come off of satellite and cell phone provider data contracts and then switch over to our service.”