Why 35,000 Sedgwick County residents will be paying more for internet next month

More than 100,000 Kansas residents will see their internet bills rise as subsidies from the Affordable Connectivity Program end.

By Trace Salzbrenner

Jamie Nix regularly sees people turning to the internet to help them answer the most critical questions in their lives.

“I’ve had people come to the library with a brand new medical diagnosis,” said Nix, Wichita’s director of libraries. “They are just wanting to use the computer to learn more about what it is.”

A federal program that gives low-income families $30 to $75 monthly subsidies for internet service evaporates June 1 after Congress didn’t extend funding for the program. Twenty-three million families were enrolled.

In Sedgwick County, more than 35,000 residents rely on the federal Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) to help cover the cost of home internet service.

Without the subsidies, said Wichita Public Schools Chief Information Officer Rob Dickson, “There might be a widening disparity between those with (internet) access and those without.”

So when teachers give kids homework that requires online research, he said, “we will see a lot more parents saying, ‘We just can’t do that.’”

Internet access as an equity issue

Cox Communications is one of the area’s largest internet providers. In a survey of its customers who relied on subsidies for their internet connections, 96% said broadband benefited their lives and 90% said it improved their children’s education. 

“We know expanding internet access to people who have not had it before boosts job opportunities, improves health outcomes and increases education opportunities,” said Coleen Jennison, a Cox spokesperson for the company’s central region.

So, those without reliable access to the internet can have a harder time finding jobs, keeping their kids engaged in school or furthering their education through an online university. 

Jennison said the pandemic shutdown and a shift to remote work and schooling made it clearer how necessary a home internet connection is for families and widened the digital divide. 

School officials also saw how critical home internet service has become.

“Most research is done online now,” Dickson, the Wichita schools’ CIO, said. “New tools like (artificial intelligence) are online now. Not having that available would set any kid back.”

A Federal Communications Commission survey found 74% of families who used the federal low-income ACP program had no home internet or relied solely on their phones before getting the subsidies. And 77% said they would have to change their plans or drop internet service entirely without the subsidy.

What is going to happen to my internet bill? 

The FCC began to wind down the program in May, sending only partial subsidies to some families. 

After June 1, most recipients should expect their broadband bill to increase by $30. Those on tribal land, where subsidies are larger, could see an increase of $75. 

Are there other options for help? 

Some households may qualify for the federal Lifeline program, which is similar but less generous. 

To qualify for Lifeline, a single person needs to make no more than $20,331 a year — for the ACP, a person could make up to $30,120 a year. And Lifeline only gives a $17 monthly subsidy. 

Private internet providers, like Cox and AT&T, also have programs that offer cheaper internet to people with lower incomes. 

Cox’s Connect2Compete package, for example, allows families with children to get a 100 Mbps connection for $10 per month. To qualify, a family must receive free or reduced-price lunches, SNAP benefits or other government assistance for low-income households. 

Meanwhile, Wichita’s libraries offer free Wi-Fi access and computers to anyone with a library card. Patrons can also check out mobile hotspots. 

Now, the library is partnering with Wichita Parks and Recreation to install Wi-Fi-equipped benches.

The first benches will be installed outside the Atwater and Colvin Neighborhood Resource Centers and the Evergreen Park Recreation Center.

“If forms, job applications, communication from schools happens electronically,” Nix said, “then that’s where people need to be.” 

This article was republished here with the permission of: The Beacon