With internet discount set to run out, Fairfax County continues effort to fix broadband access disparities

Person working on a computer (via Corinne Kutz on Unsplash)

With federal money that gives low-income households a discount on internet service set to run out this year, Fairfax County leaders and staff are looking at ways to ensure people get access to broadband internet, which they’ve likened to a utility like electricity or water.

A staff report presented to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors’ information technology committee on Tuesday (June 15) found that there are significant disparities in internet access among homes in the county due to infrastructure and affordability.

While different county representatives — from the school system to the Department of Family Services — were collaborating prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, they started looking more intently at equity issues during the pandemic, as technology needs hit a crescendo between students attending school from home and job seekers looking for work.

“Many of us saw at the outset how difficult it was for community members to work from home or for their children to be educated from home — whether or not they had the technology available, if they had strong enough internet connectivity, if they had space in their own homes to do this, or if they were trying to locate wireless within the community and do all of this from their own cars,” Fairfax County Public Library Director Jessica Hudson said.

Some zip codes are more affected by this lack of connectivity than others.

According to an analysis presented by the county, an estimated 4.2% of households in the county have no broadband internet access, but that number jumps up to 20.8% in the zip code 22044 and 18.8% in zip code 22041, both neighborhoods in the Seven Corners area of Falls Church.

The county estimates that 10.7% of households in north Reston (zip code 20190) are without broadband internet, along with 6.2% of Herndon residents (zip code 20170).

The gaps in connectivity are concentrated in areas with many people of color and lower-income households, Fairfax County Chief Equity Officer Karla Bruce said on Tuesday.

The Federal Communications Commission internet discount, known as the Emergency Broadband Benefit or EBB, helps lower-income households get a $50 discount each month for broadband service, among other benefits.

Officials are continuing to share information about the program, providing outreach in multiple languages and partnering with nonprofits and other community organizations.

You can still get the discount even if you have another benefit called Lifeline, which provides a $9.25 monthly discount indefinitely, Hudson said.

But the $3.2 billion fund set up to provide the EBB benefits nationwide is expected to run out this year, possibly around Thanksgiving, according to Hudson.

Among the county’s efforts to improve access, the library system offers Chromebooks that people can check out for two weeks at a time, along with extended exterior WiFi access outside buildings (except in parking garages) from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.

In addition, Neighborhood and Community Services is conducting a countywide analysis of Wi-Fi access, and the Department of Housing and Community Development and Redevelopment and Housing Authority are conducting a site analysis to address connectivity barriers, according to the county presentation.

“All of these community agencies are trying their hardest to find ways to connect with residents and make sure that they have appropriate technology, digital literacy skills, and access points,” Hudson said.

County supervisors asked for more information to target areas in need as part of the county’s efforts to help overcome access issues.

Photo via Corinne Kutz/Unsplash

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