With the new school year underway, officials from the White House and Hennepin County this week encouraged households to enroll in a new federal program that discounts internet service and laptops for low-income families.
The program, called the Affordable Connectivity Program, is included in the recently passed bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Eligible households receive up to a $30 discount on internet service, up to $75 for people living on tribal lands and a one-time discount of up to $100 for a laptop, tablet or desktop computer.
Since the pandemic started in 2020, Hennepin County has also earmarked $15 million for its digital equity strategy, said County Board Chair Marion Greene, who participated in a news conference with Mitch Landrieu, Senior Advisor to President Joe Biden and White House Infrastructure Coordinator, and Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell. The county has provided more than 2,900 households with internet service.
"Almost every way the county engages with the public is online," Greene said. "That can be social services, libraries, schools and the criminal justice system."
Landrieu reiterated her point, saying that high speed internet is essential for success with school being taught remotely and people using telemedicine during the pandemic.
"You can't sit in the back of your parent's car at a McDonald's trying to get internet access," he said.
More than 13 million households nationwide have taken advantage of the discount program, which Landrieu said has put hundreds of millions of dollars back in people's pockets. The discount is available to households who receive federal financial assistance, he said. The program is also to students at the 33,000 schools that offer free lunches, he said.
The White House has been working "day and night" to sign households up for the program, he said. The U.S. Department of Education has been emailing schools and students and providing tool kits and flyers on the program, and in July, Landrieu wrote to each governor to get the word out.
"We've seen great progress already," Landrieu said.
Several cities have found novel ways to promote the program. New York City had 1,700 principals stuff flyers in the backpacks of a million students, Mesa, Ariz., texted parents, while Virginia created a public service announcement shown in counties.
Harrell, the Seattle mayor, said including internet funding in the infrastructure act signals the importance it plays in everyday life and in reducing disparity. The city had a goal of connecting 20,000 households to the internet, but ended up exceeding the total by more than 2,000. The city also pitched in $6 million to help offset costs, he said.
"We have to keep going," Harrell said. "We aren't doing any victory laps."
The city produced flyers about the program in six languages and had people walking through neighborhoods to help people sign up. He said kids now realize the internet is no longer just a tool of entertainment.
Hennepin County used similar strategies to get households connected to the internet. The county not only focused urban areas, but in less populated suburban areas that may not have adequate internet access, Greene said. People who signed up received internet safety training and culturally specific training, she said.
"It's exciting to see this roll out," she said.