The Federal Communications Commission has good news for low-income residents in two parts of Massachusetts where the agency will more than double a $30-per-month subsidy to cover internet service. The bad news? They’re parts of the state where no one lives.
Under new rules adopted by the FCC last week, the current subsidy of $30 per month under the government’s Affordable Connectivity Program jumps to $75 per month for people living in areas where it is more costly to offer internet service. The idea is to provide a bigger incentive for phone, cable, and other service providers to extend their networks in rural areas.
Two places in Massachusetts qualify, federal officials said. One is in the Blue Hills Reservation in Dedham and Milton. The other is the Boston Harbor Islands. Although both are places where people have lived in the past, neither reported any population in the 2020 census.
The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, a division of the Commerce Department responsible for communications policy, selected 702 census block groups nationwide where the $75 subsidy would apply using criteria from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed by Congress in 2021, which set aside $42.5 billion to improve broadband access nationwide. To select qualifying regions, the administration considered remoteness, population density, topography, and poverty levels, along with the cost of bringing Internet service to unserved areas.
The Commerce Department declined to comment on the Massachusetts groups selected.
In Massachusetts, most people without internet service live in urban areas, according to Dan Noyes, co-chief executive of Boston nonprofit Tech Goes Home, which helps people get connected and learn how to use online resources. More than 245,000 people in the state had a computer but lacked Internet access in 2021, the most recent data available from the US Census. Another 249,000 didn’t have internet service or a computer.
The $75-per-month subsidy “is an exciting development in the national push toward digital equity,” Noyes said. “At the same time, it’s important we continue to push for additional support, including extending the Affordable Connectivity Program and deepening our investments in programs that connect communities with the digital devices and training.”
The strange eligibility selections in Massachusetts follow similar problems in the FCC’s 2020 Rural Digital Opportunity Fund program, when the agency marked highway medians and parking lots as underserved areas. And some providers in the program, including Boston’s Starry, reneged on their commitments to provide subsidized service in rural areas.
Overall, the connectivity program already provides subsidies to 19.8 million low-income households across the country, including more than 324,000 in Massachusetts. The program, included in the 2021 infrastructure law, replaced a temporary program known as the Emergency Broadband Benefit program that was created during the pandemic and covered up to $50 per month for internet service.
The higher subsidies may not last long, however. Funding for the entire connectivity program could run out as soon as April, 2024. Republicans in the House of Representatives have objected to the program, putting additional funding allocations in jeopardy. In June, a group of Republican senators who support the program suggested that the Biden administration could use unspent COVID relief funds to keep the program running while Congress seeks a compromise.