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Hundreds of thousands may qualify for federal affordable internet program, local leaders say

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Hundreds of thousands of households in Erie and Niagara Counties may be eligible for a federally-funded program created to make online access more affordable. Congressman Brian Higgins, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz and Buffalo Common Councilmember Mitch Nowakowski met in one of Buffalo’s more digitally underserved neighborhoods Friday to encourage families to check whether they qualify for the FCC Affordable Connectivity Program.

The Federal Communications Commission program is included in the infrastructure law passed last November. Qualified households may receive a $30-per-month discount on the cost of internet service. Households on eligible Tribal lands may receive monthly discounts up to $75. Additionally, the program offers a one-time discount up to $100 for a laptop, tablet, or desktop computer if the household contributes more than $10 and less than $50 toward the purchase price.

“I'm a child of the 90s. Then, internet was a luxury. It was an amenity. For children now growing up, it's a necessity in order to advance themselves, in their homes, in their lives and in school,” said Nowakowski, who represents the Broadway-Fillmore district, one he says is among the least connected neighborhoods within the City of Buffalo. “I still have families who are extremely struggling during this pandemic. When I'm out in my district on Woltz, Broadway, Loepere and the surrounding streets, I still have children in their homes, doing homework from their parents’ cell phones. That's not only wrong, but that's also a huge indicator of their ability to advance in school.”

To qualify, households must be at an income level at or below 200 percent of poverty guidelines. Or, they may meet just one of many other criteria, according to Higgins, including any member of the household receiving a Pell Grant within the past award year.

“There are approximately 40,000 Pell Grant recipients in the region. They qualify,” Higgins said. “If you receive SNAP benefits, you qualify for the broadband discount. There are over 168,000 SNAP benefit recipients in Erie and Niagara Counties. Also, families that qualify for free or reduced lunch due to income, and families that have a child at a school that provides free lunches through the US Department of Agriculture's Community Eligibility Provision.”

There are 170 school buildings in 13 area school districts that provide meals through the Community Eligible Provision. Elected leaders say many families with children in those specific school buildings may qualify for ACP. Those buildings are located within the Buffalo, Cheektowaga, Maryvale, Cheektowaga-Sloan, Cleveland Hill, Ken-Ton, Lackawanna, Lockport, Niagara Falls, Niagara Wheatfield, Sweet Home, City of Tonawanda, and West Seneca school districts.

Poloncarz, meanwhile, says Erie County will use federal funding from the American Rescue Plan to build out ErieNet, a planned broadband infrastructure, into underserved parts of the county.

“We are in the process of designing our ErieNet program right now. We are going to run ErieNet all across the City of Buffalo. We actually having conversations right now with the city administration, about the city becoming a greater partner with regards to ErieNet. And I know that is something that Councilmember Nowakowski is very glad to hear, because we want to ensure that all areas of Erie County have access to high speed internet,” Poloncarz said. “There are providers that are entering the City of Buffalo right now who are providing additional access to internet, which will also reduce the cost because when you have competition, costs go down. So it is very incumbent that people understand that high speed internet is coming to your community, even if it's not necessarily there just yet, it will be there. And when it's there, you'll be able to access it at a very reasonable cost.”

Work on ErieNet is expected to start in June.

(To learn more about ACP, including how to qualify, click here.)

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.