A paid internet program could boost rural broadband Local News

ELK RAPIDS – Federal programs aimed at expanding high-speed internet in rural areas could accelerate the efforts of local internet providers to grow their customer base.

Many reputable service providers are already on the list of the Most Affordable Connectivity Program, according to data from the Federal Communications Commission. That means their customers who earn 200 percent of the federal poverty line or less – up to $ 55,500 for a four-person household in 48 states, documents show – can receive up to $ 30 credit on their high-speed online bill.

Smaller companies are added to the ranks of providers whose customers can participate, including Cherry Capital Communications and 186 Networks.

Tim Maylone, CEO and owner of Cherry Capital Communications, said the company had just signed up. It took a little longer because the company is not a participant in Lifeline, an older federal program that offers free cell phones with limited monthly minutes. But it wasn’t too much considering the benefit for the company’s customers.

“ACP was, I think, a great program that still allows us to charge what we charge as a provider that is high risk of putting that fiber in the ground,” he said, alluding to the program’s acronym. “So it just helps the customer directly. It still has to be competitive price-wise monthly, but if the monthly price prevents anyone from adopting fiber or adopting the internet, $ 30 helps. “

Allison Popa, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development-certified budget housing coach for Northwest Michigan Community Action Agency, said it could be a boost for eligible households.

“It’s really easy to look at $ 30 and be like, well, that’s really nothing, but it’s at the grocery store, it’s a few meals and it’s a gas tank, even though at the moment it’s maybe half a tank of gasoline,” she said.

Affordable internet could help build demand while Cherry Capital Communications grows its fiber network, Maylone said. And it’s not the only federal program in play. The company was one of several in Michigan and more than 100 nationwide to get a slice of the Rural Development Opportunity Fund, according to Maylone. Cherry Capital Communications will use the money to connect up to 2,781 homes spread across eight districts, including Benzie, Leelanau and Grand Traverse.

That in combination with American Rescue Plan money helped the company cut its installation fee to $ 500 in some places, and give it up altogether for affordable access customers, Maylone said.

It is not the only company participating in the Rural Development Opportunity Fund. CCO Holdings LLC – related to Charter Communications, archives show – aims to build huge areas in the region, especially east of Empire and in southern Grand Traverse County.

Funding is a sign of bipartisan support at the state and federal levels to build what high-speed internet advocates see as an economic engine and, increasingly, a necessity in the home in previously unserved areas.

Michigan Gov. Garlin Gilchrist in April spoke to the Eagle of Records about a recent $ 250 million acceleration to build a high-speed Internet in rural areas. That was part of a larger infrastructure spending package that he applauded Republican lawmakers for working with Governor Gretchen Whitmer to make it happen.

Gilchrist has shown research showing how high-speed internet is linked to a better quality of life in addition to economic opportunities. The grants and the newly created High-Speed ​​Internet Office will help close the gaps in rural areas.

“There is a bipartisan consensus here that this is a problem that we need to solve, and with the goals that we have set, with the bipartisan funding that we have created that we have established and invested, we know that this problem in Michigan can “We’re glad we’re working on it,” he said.

Both Cherry Capital Communications and 186 Networks are looking to expand fiber networks – the latter company has one in and around Rapid City and another stretch near Christmas Cove near Northport.

Dale Gaylord, owner of 186 Networks, said she believes it will be required once the word comes out.

The program is not without its disadvantages – Popa said that an income limit that does not take into account other expenses means households that earn more but pay high rents, childcare or other expenses may not qualify, even if their budgets are tight.

Moreover, it pays less than the $ 50 credit the Emergency Broadband Benefit provided to households that had lower incomes or a significant drop in job loss or dismissal, according to the FCC. That program ended in 2021, with the Expensive Connectivity Program taking its place.

On the other hand, it is intended to be a long-term replacement for a temporary acceleration, according to the FCC.

That consistency makes it more attractive than its predecessor to Great Lakes Energy Cooperative, said Brett Streby, the cooperative’s marketing and communications manager. The power utility has built a fiber-optic network at the tip of the Lower Peninsula, from Mackinaw City to Gaylord west to Eastport, plus a growing area between Hart and Whitehall, and plans to eventually connect its entire service area.

TrueStream Fiber, as the co-op’s online service is called, is not yet part of the Expensive Connectivity Plan although Streby said he expected it to be, but couldn’t say when.

Indigenous people on tribal lands receive even greater credit, at $ 75 a month, according to the FCC. That remains unchanged from the Crisis Broadband Profit.

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