Tens of thousands of Central Florida residents could receive a $30 cut on their internet bills as part of a federal effort to bridge the so-called digital divide that has disconnected millions nationwide from the online world.
The deal, announced earlier this month between the Biden Administration and 20 providers, including Spectrum and AT&T, provides a discounted – even free for some plans – rate to low-income households that are not more than twice the federal poverty threshold or eligible for benefits. Such as SNAP, WIC, Medicaid, and free and reduced lunches at school.
In Orlando, about 39% of residents qualify, said Mike Hess, director of Orlando’s Future Ready initiative. This about 120,000 people.
In unincorporated Orange County, between 30 and 35% of households, or more than 500,000 people, qualify, says Andrea Wesser, who serves as chief innovation and emerging technologies, a post created by Mayor Jerry Demings nearly three years ago. Brawn
He said affordability is one of the two big causes of the digital divide. The second is accessibility, which requires investment in optical fiber and other communications infrastructure, which is often lacking in areas without reliable high-speed connections.
District 5, County Commissioner Regina Hill, which includes several of Orlando’s neighborhoods with the highest home percentages He said he often hears from families whose budgets can’t afford faster and more expensive internet service without broadband.
“Operating costs are increasing. Rental costs are rising. Cable and internet are also a luxury,” he said. “Now you say you have to pay $1,200, $60 for a 1-bedroom room at Parramore. [a month] many.”
Officially called the Affordable Connectivity Program, the plan was created by the federal infrastructure package and replaces the temporary Emergency Broadband Benefit that was enacted during the pandemic to lower prices for low-income earners.
The new $14 billion program cuts earnings from $50 a month to $30 a month, but broadens the ways people qualify.
The Biden Administration announced it this month, saying that millions of Americans could benefit from it. Visit getinternet.gov to find out if you are eligible. You can apply online, by post or through your internet company.
US Representative Darren Soto said that COVID-19 came to the fore when some students struggled to complete their schoolwork at home without internet, and that online portals are also critical for scheduling appointments for coronavirus testing and vaccines.
“Internet access is critical to everything from business to education to healthcare, and we have friends left behind in Central Florida,” said D-Kissimmee’s Soto. “An essential part of our lives… You need high-speed internet to participate in the 21st century economy.”
As the COVID-19 pandemic forced schoolchildren to attend remote classes and adults to work from home, many Seminole residents began calling county officials to complain that they did not have the required high-speed internet connections.
They said that even accessing a website or turning a page on computer screens happens at a snail’s pace – if that.
Seminole County commissioners are planning Use $4.7 million of the state’s $92 million in federal aid money from the American Recovery Plan Act to find a solution. First step: Seminole in March launched a survey asking residents about their home’s connectivity and speed and asking them to take a speed test.
Results will be announced at the board in July by Magellan Advisors, the consultants appointed to conduct the survey and provide recommendations for improving lagging internet speeds. Lake County Commissioners this week approved a contract with the same firm to review the county’s infrastructure and broadband needs.
More than 85% of Florida households had access to broadband in 2020, according to a table from the Florida Department of Health. Orange, Osceola, Seminole, and Lake counties have higher reach than the state average, ranging from 86.9% in Osceola to 91.4% in Seminole.
Both Spectrum and AT&T, Central Florida’s two largest providers, add and offer $30 credit to any plan. Both companies offer 100Mbps download speeds for free after credit is applied.
Demings said the pandemic has exacerbated existing problems with internet accessibility in some unincorporated communities that lack the infrastructure for strong Wi-Fi signals.
Areas with access or affordability issues include Bithlo and Christmas in East Orange; Holden Heights, Pine Hills and south Apopka; and Tildenville in west Orange.
Hill said that during COVID-19, students and others whose jobs have moved from offices home without strong reception — or at all — have gone to McDonald’s or other establishments with open networks to do business.
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This helped bring broadband access to the fore, and Congress included $65 billion in broadband infrastructure investment in the $1.9 trillion package. In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis has directed $400 million of that money to expand access in the state, particularly in rural communities. Counties like Orange, Seminole, and Lake are exploring gaps in jurisdiction and ways to expand coverage.
Hess said that in Orlando, authorities are mapping internet speeds in neighborhoods and trying to determine why about 20% of residents aren’t online.
At five neighborhood centers in the city, residents can control hotspots to provide coverage to their homes or supplement existing coverage. This program will be expanded using CARES Act grant funding. He said all neighborhood centers in low- and middle-income communities will also include free digital literacy classes.
Orlando spokesperson Samantha Holsten said this expansion will include a total of 88 hotspots, 62 tablets and 62 laptops that can be controlled for free.
On June 8, Hess said that a workshop is planned at the James R. Smith Neighborhood Center on Bruton Avenue to discuss broadband barriers and will include information on how to take advantage of the Economic Connectivity Program loan. More workshops are planned throughout the city.
“We know well where people don’t have internet access; we have a good understanding of what the speeds are in the neighborhoods; “But now we’re going to start meeting with our residents to better understand the ‘why’,” he said.