Internet access funds can boost connections for low-income families

Mandy Zalich knows how important Internet services have become in Westmoreland County. For many low-income residents, the rising cost of the service has more than just cut them off.

This week’s announcement by the Biden administration of a plan to provide $30 monthly grants for high-speed Internet access is a welcome program for residents already dealing with financial difficulties, said Zalich, executive director of Westmoreland Community Action, a nun. -profit organization that provides social services and education programs for low-income residents.

“This will open a lot of doors for people,” she said. “This has been a struggle for a long time, and one of the benefits of the pandemic is awareness of this need. The internet has increasingly become a utility and it is essential to be part of the community.”

The Biden administration said 20 Internet companies, including Comcast and AT&T, that provide services in Western Pennsylvania, have agreed to offer the discount. Those companies cover about 80% of the U.S. population, including 50% of the rural population, according to the White House. Nationally, the program could qualify tens of millions of households for free services through a current federal subsidy. The infrastructure package approved by Congress last year earmarked about $14.2 billion for the Affordable Connectivity program.

According to the income guidelines, families of four with annual incomes of about $55,000 are eligible. Generally, those households that meet 200% of the federal poverty guidelines qualify for the rebate.

About 82,000 residents of Westmoreland County, more than 23%, live at or below the poverty line, Zalich said.

Westmoreland County participated in a 2020 survey of broadband needs by the Southern Alleghenies Planning and Development Commission. It turned out that 10% of the provincial houses have no internet access. The same study identified about a dozen Internet service providers operating in the county that charge between $20 and $135 per month for broadband service.

“For many people, it’s a priceless service,” says Zalich.

The ability for lower-income people to get affordable Internet service “is so important to the underprivileged in the community,” said Carol Palcic, executive director of the Greensburg YWCA.

The need to reduce the cost of Internet services “has been an issue for a long time” because so many people can’t afford the additional costs, said Karen Snair, executive director of the 54-member Allegheny Valley Association of Churches, which offers a range of social services. services to residents of Allegheny and Westmoreland counties from its Natrona Heights office.

“There are a lot of kids who have schoolwork to do but don’t have internet at home,” says Snair. “The kids who didn’t have it were hugely disadvantaged” as schools moved to virtual learning during the covid restrictions, she said.

While many employers offered some form of hybrid work schedules, allowing employees to do their work from home, not all employees could afford the internet to work remotely, Snair said.

The plan to extend Internet service discounts to low-income residents comes at a time when the county has formed a task force to examine how to extend the reach of broadband services to underserved communities in the county, said Dan DeBone, president of the Westmoreland Chamber of Commerce.

Providing Internet services to those outlying areas of the county will give those residents more opportunities for employment, as well as for education and performing tasks such as making appointments, DeBone said.

“There is such a large rural area. It’s not going to happen overnight,” DeBone said.

Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Rich at 724-830-6293, [email protected] or via Twitter

Leave a Comment