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Internet subsidy nears end for 5,000 low-income VI households

Education Commissioner Dionne Wells-Hedrington testifies during a Committee on Housing, Transportation and Telecommunications meeting last Wednesday in the Earle B. Ottley Legislative Hall on St. Thomas.
Photo courtesy of Legislature of the Virgin Islands
Education Commissioner Dionne Wells-Hedrington testifies during a Committee on Housing, Transportation and Telecommunications meeting last Wednesday in the Earle B. Ottley Legislative Hall on St. Thomas.

ST. CROIX — The Virgin Islands Office of Management and Budget is poised to spend federal funds on a proposed internet rate subsidy program as the territory’s elected officials urge Congress to extend the Affordable Connectivity Program that provides qualifying low-income households discounts on broadband service and connected devices.

After Congress funded ACP to help bridge the digital divide, the Federal Communications Commission is winding down the program now that the allotment is projected to run out in April barring further congressional appropriations.

Members of the VI Legislature and Delegate to Congress Stacey Plaskett are urging Congress to fully fund the Affordable Connectivity Program that provides a $30 monthly subsidy to more than 22 million households nationwide, including 5,000 in the territory. ACP applications and enrollments will not be processed after February 7 because the $14.2 billion allotment appropriated in the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 is projected to run out in April.

Senators recently learned of a similar, federally-funded program called ConnectVI that OMB is preparing to offer pending approval from the National Telecommunications and Information Association that would be available for those enrolled in ACP as well as a larger pool of residents to include the middle class.

As the territory’s elected officials urge Congress to appropriate additional funding to extend ACP, they are questioning the timeline for OMB to implement its ConnectVI program.

Additionally, the head of a local internet service provider that provides broadband to 3,500 of the territory’s households enrolled in ACP urged senators during a committee meeting last week to identify funds to extend the program in the territory until it is known whether Congress will do so nationally, and until OMB can launch its program.

As the Affordable Connectivity Program winds down, the Virgin Islands Department of Education is urging parents and guardians to complete an application online at https://forms.office.com/r/QR8Ex001HL before the deadline on Friday so qualifying students in the Free and Reduced Breakfast and Lunch Programs can receive free tablets and internet services as part of a partnership with Heritage Wireless and the dedicated efforts of Senator Donna Frett-Gregory that is tied to ACP funding.
Screenshot from Virgin Islands Department of Education
As the Affordable Connectivity Program winds down, the Virgin Islands Department of Education is urging parents and guardians to complete an application online at https://forms.office.com/r/QR8Ex001HL before the deadline on Friday so qualifying students in the Free and Reduced Breakfast and Lunch Programs can receive free tablets and internet services as part of a partnership with Heritage Wireless and the dedicated efforts of Senator Donna Frett-Gregory that is tied to ACP funding.

Senator Marvin Blyden, Committee on Housing, Transportation and Telecommunications chair, and the committee’s co-chair, Senator Marise James, have joined Plaskett and the New Democrat Coalition by sending a letter to congressional leadership urging full funding of the Affordable Connectivity Program with an additional $6 billion.

“I hope and pray that Congress actually extends it,” Blyden, who questioned testifiers about ACP during a committee meeting he chaired last Wednesday, said by phone. “With all of the gridlock going on in Congress, I’m not sure that’s going to happen, but I just hope and pray it does.”

James, the committee co-chair, spoke of the importance of ACP.

“The reason that we are asking Congress to extend the program is quite simply that we need to have more people, especially low-income households connected to the internet,” she said by phone, noting that she remains hopeful that Congress will understand that millions of Americans nationwide rely on the Affordable Connectivity Program to be able to maintain internet service.

Speaking in her capacity as chair of the Committee on Education and Workforce Development, James also said she’s hopeful Congress will extend the program because students need access to the internet to complete their schoolwork. She also pointed out senior citizens depend on the internet for health care and communicating with their family members off island.

“There’s so many reasons why we need internet service in the society that we’re living in right now,” she said, adding that parents on a tight budget who cannot afford an additional $30 per month might decide to cancel their internet service.

Senator Milton Potter and Office of Management and Budget Director Jenifer O’Neal speak during a Committee on Housing, Transportation and Telecommunications meeting last Wednesday in the Earle B. Ottley Legislative Hall on St. Thomas.
Photo courtesy of Legislature of the Virgin Islands
Senator Milton Potter and Office of Management and Budget Director Jenifer O’Neal speak during a Committee on Housing, Transportation and Telecommunications meeting last Wednesday in the Earle B. Ottley Legislative Hall on St. Thomas.

OMB Director Jenifer O’Neal told senators during last week’s committee meeting that the NTIA awarded the territory $27.1 million in funding through the Broadband Equity Access and Deployment grant program to be invested into four areas — internet access affordability, digital economic transformation, community digital competency, and workforce upskilling. She told senators that OMB’s proposals include a proposed rate subsidy program, ConnectVI, that is like the FCC’s Affordable Connectivity Program but will be available to all eligible Virgin Islanders. She said the proposed ConnectVI program would offer a 25% monthly subsidy to all qualified ISP subgrantees in the territory for each internet subscriber to whom fixed fiber service is provided, as well as a one-time $100 voucher for the purchase and installation of a capable router to a technical specification for each new customer participating in the program.

Geraldine Pitt, Viya chief executive officer, pointed out during last Wednesday’s committee meeting that the 5,000 VI households receiving the $30 monthly subsidy totals $150,000 per month, or $1.8 million per year. She urged senators to find the funds needed to expand the Affordable Connectivity Program on a local level until OMB utilizes the Broadband Equity Access and Deployment grant funding to implement the ConnectVI program.

“Viya is ready, with the members of this body to develop a plan to address the digital divide, but time is of the essence,” she said. “We must now act, or customers are going to experience a crippling loss of broadband service within the next three months, even as the plan in place is still in its preliminary stages and requires continued consultation. The gap and the time does not allow us to do a smooth transition. We almost need something almost in the interim while we continue working on the BEAD funding plan.”

Geraldine Pitt, Viya chief executive officer, testifies during a Committee on Housing, Transportation and Telecommunications meeting last Wednesday in the Earle B. Ottley Legislative Hall on St. Thomas. Stephan Adams, Virgin Islands Next Generation Network chief executive officer, is also pictured.
Photo courtesy of Legislature of the Virgin Islands
Geraldine Pitt, Viya chief executive officer, testifies during a Committee on Housing, Transportation and Telecommunications meeting last Wednesday in the Earle B. Ottley Legislative Hall on St. Thomas. Stephan Adams, Virgin Islands Next Generation Network chief executive officer, is also pictured.

Blyden pointed out the territory’s financial predicament could prevent the appropriation of funds to extend ACP locally.

“We do have challenges in respect to funding and revenues, etcetera,” he said Tuesday.

Blyden, who noted that revenue collections for the first quarter of this fiscal year were $8 million less than the same time last fiscal year, is pessimistic about the chance that local funds will be identified to bridge the gap.

“I honestly believe it’s less to none based on the numbers that we are seeing right now, and based on the trends,” he said.

James, the committee co-chair, remains hopeful that the Legislature will find a way to fund ACP locally until it is known what Congress will do, suggesting there should be a focus on maintaining broadband services for students until the end of the academic year in addition to assisting OMB in speeding up its roll out of ConnectVI. She questioned testifiers during last Wednesday’s committee meeting regarding how long it would take for OMB to implement the program. Cristeen Rodriguez-Cox, OMB senior performance analyst, told senators that the federal government must approve both of OMB’s initial proposals.

“The ConnectVI program cannot begin until we receive final approval from NTIA of both Volumes I and II of the initial proposal, and the submission of our final five-year plan, so once we receive all the funding in the territory, then we can be able to implement the programs that we have set forth in our proposals,” Rodriguez-Cox said.

The loss of ACP would also reduce the efficacy of Congress’ groundbreaking $42 billion investment in the BEAD program, the New Democrat Coalition indicated in its letter to congressional leadership, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY). The letter noted that a recent study found that ACP reduces the subsidy amount needed to incentivize broadband deployment in rural areas by 25% per household, stressing that ACP is necessary to maximize BEAD program dollars intended to build out the nation’s broadband infrastructure and ensure that no community gets left behind.

Applications and enrollments for the Affordable Connectivity Program will not be processed after Feb. 7 because the $14.2 billion allotment appropriated in the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 is projected to run out in April.
Applications and enrollments for the Affordable Connectivity Program will not be processed after Feb. 7 because the $14.2 billion allotment appropriated in the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 is projected to run out in April.

As the Affordable Connectivity Program winds down, the Virgin Islands Department of Education is urging parents and guardians to complete an application online at https://forms.office.com/r/QR8Ex001HL before the deadline on Friday so qualifying students in the Free and Reduced Breakfast and Lunch Programs can receive free tablets and internet services as part of a partnership with Heritage Wireless and the dedicated efforts of Senator Donna Frett-Gregory that is tied to ACP funding.

Blyden spoke on the timing of VIDE’s announcement following his committee meeting held last week.

“Since the hearing, we hear that the department have entered into an agreement with the wireless provider in such short time, and we have local carriers that actually have reached out in the past in respect to those same programs, and they are already vested here in the territory,” he said. “They are already part of the wireless space, so I just have questions in respect to how did this come about, and what is being done in terms of our local providers because I know time is of the essence.”

Since low-income households participating in ACP will no longer receive discounts on broadband service and connected devices after the funds run out, James stressed the importance of getting the message out so Virgin Islanders aren’t caught by surprise in three months.

“My biggest concern is that people understand that there is the likelihood that Congress will not extend the funding and that it will then end, and they need to then consider or plan their budgets now,” she said.

Tom Eader is the Chief Reporter for WTJX. Originally from South Bend, Indiana, Eader received his bachelor's degree in journalism from Ball State University, where he wrote for his college newspaper. He moved to St. Croix in 2003, after landing a job as a reporter for the St. Croix Avis. Eader worked at the Avis for 20 years, as both a reporter and photographer, and served as Bureau Chief from 2013 until their closure at the beginning of 2024. Eader is an award-winning journalist, known for his thorough and detailed reporting on multiple topics important to the Virgin Islands community. Joining the WTJX team in January of 2024, Eader brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to the newsroom.