Here's what to know about how new high-speed internet programs affect Iowans

·7 min read

A lot of Iowans are in line for faster — and less expensive — internet service as the White House rolls out new programs.

As part of the $1 trillion infrastructure spending bill that Congress passed last year, President Joe Biden announced May 9 that some private providers will offer what is effectively free service for some eligible customers. Others who qualify may get sizable discounts.

And on Friday, a federal agency announced that states can begin to apply for grants to install lines and other technology to bring fast internet to more communities. The program could mark a major improvement for parts of rural Iowa.

Here's what to know about the initiatives.

How can I get a $30 monthly discount to pay for internet?

The Affordable Connectivity Program, which began Dec. 31, provides a $30 monthly discount for all eligible internet customers. The program includes a $75 discount for residents of tribal lands.

The Federal Communications Commission awards the discount to families with income at 200% of the federal poverty guideline or lower. Also eligible are families that qualify for other forms of government assistance.

What are income limits for the Affordable Connectivity Program?

As of 2020, 200% of the federal poverty guideline is:

  • $27,180 for one person.

  • $36,620 for two people.

  • $46,060 for three people.

  • $55,500 for four people.

  • $64,940 for five people.

  • $74,380 for six people.

  • $83,820 for seven people.

  • $93,260 for eight people.

For each additional person in the home, add $9,440.

Are there other ways to be eligible?

Residents who receive government subsidies through any of the following programs also are eligible for the discount on their internet bills:

  • Food stamps.

  • Medicaid.

  • Special Supplemental Nutrition for Women, Infants and Children.

  • Supplemental Security Income.

  • Veterans Affairs pension and survivors benefits.

  • Free and reduced-price school lunch.

  • Federal Pell Grants.

  • Lifeline.

Recipients of aid from these tribal-specific programs also are eligible:

  • Bureau of Indian Affairs General Assistance.

  • Tribal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

  • Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations.

  • Head Start.

Is it possible to get fast internet for free?

As part of the Affordable Connectivity Program, several internet service providers have agreed to create plans that charge just $30 a month for eligible residents. With the federal subsidy, the plans are effectively free.

According to the White House, participating plans will provide download speeds of at least 100 megabits per second.

Where can I sign up?

Customers can enroll in the Affordable Connectivity Program at nv.fcc.gov/lifeline.

What providers in Iowa are offering the $30-a-month plan?

A list released by the White House shows Mediacom is the only major provider offering the $30-a-month plan.

Thomas Larsen, Mediacom senior vice president of government and public relations, said in an email that the company began offering service for $30 a month to eligible customers in January, weeks after the program launched. At first, the plan offered download speeds of 50 megabits per second, but Larsen said the company doubled the speed for those customers on March 14 "after some discussions with White House staff."

The two other biggest wireless internet service providers in Iowa — CenturyLink and Windstream — were not on the White House list. Windstream spokesperson Brandi Stafford said the company is evaluating the impact of $30-a-month service, adding that Windstream “serves a predominantly rural footprint.”

Danielle Spears, a spokesperson for Lumen, CenturyLink's parent company, said in an email, "We continue to work to develop low-cost broadband options for our customers, including ones similar to those announced this week."

CenturyLink and Windstream, however, do participate in the Affordable Connectivity Program. That means eligible customers can get the $30 monthly discount.

How fast is fast?

The FCC generally considers download speeds of 25 megabits per second to be fast, but the research group Broadband Now argues that connections at that speed provide high-speed internet only if there are no more than two users in a home.

The group recommends download speeds of at least 100 megabits per second for homes with a large number of users.

How many Iowans can get this service?

The FCC estimates 48 million U.S. households can get the discount. But agency spokesperson Anne Veigle told the Des Moines Register that the FCC has not estimated the number of eligible customers for each state.

She said the agency can't make a calculation based on the number of residents in Iowa who receive other aid from federal programs because some receive multiple forms of assistance. A resident who gets food stamps and Medicaid, for example, would be counted twice.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 846,000 Iowans have incomes 200% or below the federal poverty level. That would come out to about 28% of all Iowans. But that is likely an overcount, given many families have multiple income earners, potentially pushing them above that 200% threshold.

How many Iowans have enrolled?

In the first five months of the program, according to the FCC, about 59,000 Iowans enrolled.

Overall, as of May 9, about 11.7 million U.S. households were enrolled — about one-fourth of the number that the FCC estimates are eligible for the program. The White House says the federal government is trying to partner with cities, counties and nonprofits such as United Way to get the word out.

How does Iowa's high-speed internet access compare to the rest of the country's?

According to Broadband Now, about 91% of Iowans have access to internet services providing connection of at least 100 megabits per second, ranking the state 32nd.

However, the researchers have found major differences throughout Iowa. All residents of Winnebago County have access to high-speed internet, as do 98% to 99% of residents in Dubuque, Scott, Sioux, Polk, Black Hawk and Davis counties. In Dallas County, 96% of residents do.

But there is a lot of variation among other counties. For instance, in Ida County, according to Broadband Now, only 6% of residents have access to high-speed internet. About 47% of residents in Van Buren County and 48% in Taylor County do.

Further, Broadband Now finds that most major internet providers in Iowa don't consistently reach the 100 megabits per second threshold.

Mediacom averages 172 megabits per second, according to the researchers. But they found Windstream averages 53; CenturyLink, 49; Rise Broadband, 24; and Nextlink Internet, 8.

Broadband Now Editor-in-Chief Tyler Cooper said in an email that the group bases its research on data providers submit to the FCC, as well as "proprietary data collection and data directly from providers."

What are the plans for states to expand fast internet?

The Affordable Connectivity Program is a relatively small component of the broader White House plan to get high-speed internet to more people.

Last year's federal infrastructure spending bill included $65 billion for broadband expansion. About $14 billion was for the connectivity program. But the bulk of the money — $42.45 billion — is for a program to bring fast internet to new areas.

The Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program will provide grants to states in several phases. First, states will receive money to create a plan. They will later receive money to begin laying down whatever fiber lines or other technology they need to provide high-speed internet to new areas, beginning in 2024.

As part of their proposals, state governments must include plans to create low-cost internet for residents. U.S. Deputy Secretary of Commerce Don Graves said during an online news conference Friday that the definition of "low-cost" is up to the states, with federal approval.

"Every community is different," he said. "And we've said all along we want to give states flexibility."

States must file letters of intent with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration by July 18. They must file applications for the planning phase of the program by Aug. 15.

How did Iowa lawmakers vote on the infrastructure bill?

Two members of Iowa's congressional delegation, Democratic U.S. Rep. Cindy Axne and Republican U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, voted for the infrastructure spending bill that funded the broadband programs.

Republican U.S. Reps. Randy Feenstra, Ashley Hinson and Mariannette Miller-Meeks and Republican U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst voted against the bill.

Tyler Jett covers jobs and the economy for the Des Moines Register. Reach him at tjett@registermedia.com, 515-284-8215, or on Twitter at @LetsJett.

This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: What to know about Affordable Connectivity Program, cheaper internet