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Temporary Program Can Help WI Residents with Internet Bills

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Monday, May 24, 2021   

TOMAHAWK, Wis. - Wisconsin residents struggling to afford internet service during the pandemic can turn to a federal program for help. Supporters say it addresses a component of broadband access that is sometimes overlooked.

Through its Emergency Broadband Benefit, the Federal Communications Commission provides service discounts of up to $50 a month for qualifying households, and $75 a month for homes on tribal lands.

Sue Dierksen, who lives in north-central Wisconsin, said slow service causes many limitations, including her family's ability to use telemedicine. And all around her, Dierksen said affordability is a concern for many residents, including those over 50.

"You couple that with what's going on with prescription drugs and health care," said Dierksen. "Something's got to give."

In Wisconsin, the average internet cost per megabit is $4.32, which is higher than the national rate.

People are urged to sign up quickly, as the Emergency Broadband Benefit will be in force either until its funds are gone, or six months after the pandemic is over. Eligible households can apply through participating internet service providers.

In recent years, state and federal leaders have made efforts to address broadband gaps, including infrastructure needs in rural areas. But cost can still be intimidating for people to even sign up for service, and AARP Wisconsin's State Director Sam Wilson said this program makes that less of a worry.

"We're hoping this program will help a lot of folks take that initial step," said Wilson. "Connect them more with family members, connect them more with services in their community."

During the crisis, Wilson noted people with internet access could rely on options like Amazon deliveries to avoid day-to-day disruptions. But those without service or with slow download speeds saw their world turned upside-down in a flash.

Dierksen said she feels it's important to make sure all parts of the state stay connected - because when you need help, internet access usually plays a role.

"Every state agency, and probably almost every county agency," said Dierksen, "relies on you using the internet to do their work and to communicate with them, as does Social Security and Medicare."

The program coincides with Gov. Tony Evers directing $100 million of COVID-relief money to broadband expansion grants. He also wants the Legislature to commit $200 million to improve access, but it's uncertain if Republican leaders will approve that request.

Disclosure: AARP Wisconsin contributes to our fund for reporting on Budget Policy & Priorities, Consumer Issues, Health Issues, Senior Issues. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.


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