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Broadband companies pledge to help low income families pay for high speed internet

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

If you don't have access to the internet, it can obviously make a lot of things really challenging, like doing homework or having a virtual appointment with your doctor or staying in touch with your family. Well, today President Biden says his administration is trying to make sure everyone can afford the internet.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: And that's why the bipartisan infrastructure law included $65 billion to make sure we expand access to broadband internet in every region of the country - urban, suburban and rural, everywhere.

CHANG: Biden was joined in the Rose Garden by a slew of internet providers who have agreed to cut their prices for low-income people. Well, we're joined now by Chris Lewis. He works with the advocacy group Public Knowledge, which has been pushing for greater access to affordable internet. Welcome.

CHRIS LEWIS: Thanks for having me, Ailsa.

CHANG: Well, thanks for being with us. So the president says that there are now a bunch of companies on board to lower internet costs. What's your general reaction to the news today? Like, how significant is this development?

LEWIS: This is an important but, we should note, small step towards closing the digital divide. As the president noted, the $65 billion that was invested takes some great strides towards deploying broadband to areas that don't have it. But the announcement today was focused on the affordability problem. The cost of broadband is one of the leading causes for why many people who have access don't sign up. This voluntary pledge today from broadband providers is a good first start to make sure that there is a low-cost option. So there will be relief for some here, but we still have a long way to go to make sure that broadband is affordable. And the president, I think, noted that at the end of his speech.

CHANG: I understand the administration already started a program that offers low-income families a $30-per-month subsidy...

LEWIS: Right.

CHANG: ...To help pay for internet service. And something like 11.5 million people are using that stipend now. But another 30 million, I gather, are eligible. So why is there such a gap there between the amount of people who are eligible for this subsidy and the amount of people who are actually availing themselves of it?

LEWIS: Right. This program that you're talking about with the $30 subsidy has only been around for about a year or so. We have a ways to go to grow the outreach so that folks understand that that option's available.

CHANG: Is that the main problem - that the word just hasn't spread about the availability of this stipend?

LEWIS: Exactly. And that's why these partnerships with nonprofit organizations and other local groups are so important. I think of groups like the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, which has chapters in every state, doing work at libraries and community centers, reaching people on the ground. They may have chapters who can help people get connected and sign up for these low-cost programs with broadband providers. So it's going to take a real public-private effort.

CHANG: How affordable is this new program, really? Like, if you factor in the required fees that come with signing up for internet access, does this program really lower the costs in a meaningful way?

LEWIS: Let's hope so for the folks who qualify. You know, the reports today from the White House were that the commitment - and, again, it's a voluntary commitment by a number of broadband providers - was that it would be a $30 broadband plan all-in is how we heard it put. And that's great. Now, there are folks people who do not qualify for this. And so they'll still be paying the three and four times the cost that we see for high-speed broadband in the general marketplace. And so that's why I think we have a ways to go to actually study and see why broadband is so expensive for everyone and also what the impact is of having so few choices in the broadband marketplace.

CHANG: All right. That is Chris Lewis. He is the president of the advocacy group Public Knowledge. Thank you very much for joining us today.

LEWIS: Thank you, Ailsa.

CHANG: And to find out if you might qualify for this $30-a-month program, head over to getinternet.gov or call 877-384-2575. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.