South Dakota broadband connectivity map. (Courtesy ConnectSD)
Just over two years ago, Congress pumped $14.2 billion into the Affordable Connectivity Program in hopes of connecting more people to high-speed internet.
Eligible low-income households on tribal land can get $75 off their monthly internet bills; those outside of tribal land can get $30 a month. The program also offers $100 one-time payments for the purchase of a laptop, desktop or tablet.
This story is one of two exploring South Dakota’s plans to improve usage of the Affordable Connectivity Program. The companion article examines the South Dakota congressional delegation’s concerns about the federal program.
But the eligible don’t get the money unless they ask. And hardly any eligible South Dakotans do ask.
The quickest way to ask is online, but that’s not especially simple for someone without an internet-connected device or an email address.
Knowing the program exists is an obvious prerequisite, of course, and plenty of the people who could benefit don’t.
Those are a few of the reasons just 16% of eligible South Dakotans — 21,283 people — have collected a share of the money, according to state officials and nonprofit groups working to connect people to the benefits.
That figure puts South Dakota behind every state but North Dakota for program enrollment.
The 84% of eligible South Dakotans who go without add up to more than 107,000 people.
South Dakotans have benefitted from $12.5 million thus far through the program, according to the Universal Service Administrative Company, which administers the funds on behalf of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
Improving those numbers is one of several goals embedded in the state’s digital equity plan, submitted Nov. 14 to the federal Department of Commerce by the state Department of Labor and Regulation.
The plan will help determine how much of the $2.75 billion made available through the Digital Equity Act will land in state coffers.
The Digital Equity Act is separate from the Affordable Connectivity Program, though both address broadband issues.
While the connectivity program is only accessible to those with low incomes, the equity act is meant to help states address connectivity issues to a broader population through long-term programs, as well as to address gaps in digital literacy and security. South Dakota collected $527,052 through the act to write its digital opportunity plan.
The Digital Equity Act aims to help eight “covered populations” get access to and learn how to best use the internet — inmates, veterans, people with disabilities, people 60 or older, racial or ethnic minorities, people with limited literacy skills and rural populations.
“About 81.6% of South Dakotans fall into one of these categories,” said Bill Wendling, the state’s digital opportunity coordinator.
Among other goals, the South Dakota digital opportunity plan would move to enroll more people in the Affordable Connectivity Program, or through other programs such as Lifeline, which offers $9.95 off internet bills. Lifeline has sent just over $1 million to South Dakota residents so far in 2023.
The state plan would also address digital literacy and cybersecurity through outreach and education programs, and could involve the purchase of digital devices for distribution to needy households.
But the Affordable Connectivity Program’s future is unclear, as is the amount of funding South Dakota will have to implement its plan. Congress has yet to extend the connectivity program’s funding beyond next April; the vast majority of Digital Equity Act funding has yet to be awarded.
Meanwhile, Sen. John Thune, R-South Dakota, joined Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Washington, and Rep. Bob Latta, R-Ohio, in a recent letter voicing concerns about the connectivity program. The GOP group characterizes it as wasteful spending.
“While you have repeatedly claimed that the ACP is necessary for connecting participating households to the internet, it appears the vast majority of tax dollars have gone to households that already had broadband prior to the subsidy,” the lawmakers wrote in their letter, addressed to FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel.
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State plan: Connection, education
Back in South Dakota, Wendling offered the details on South Dakota’s participation in the Affordable Connectivity Program and residents’ digital needs during a Dec. 11 meeting of the state’s Workforce Development Council.
The digital opportunity plan proposes more “navigators” to help connect eligible families to broadband assistance. Currently, there are seven state employment specialists who spend half their work time acting as navigators now from local job service offices. Several nonprofit organizations also employ digital navigators, though the state doesn’t support them financially at the moment.
The labor department declined to make Wendling available for an interview. In an emailed response to questions from South Dakota Searchlight, department spokesperson Dawn Dovre said the combination of state employees and contractors have “ensured every county in South Dakota has a Navigator (whether it be ours or someone else’s) to assist them if needed.”
Barriers to using the subsidies, Dovre wrote, include a lack of knowledge about the program, a cumbersome application process and, for some, a lack of trust in the federal government and internet service providers.
That list of barriers matches those seen nationwide, according to Ellen Goldich, who leads the strategic partnership work of the Education Superhighway.
“I think a lot of people think it’s a scam,” Goldich said. “There’s a lot of feeling of, ‘I’m not sure if this is a legitimate program.’”
Wendling told the workforce council it’ll be a few months before he knows how much funding the state will get to implement it under the Digital Equity Act, regardless of what happens with the Affordable Connectivity Program.
The first $60 million of the act’s funding was used to help states pay for the production of their digital opportunity plans. The remaining money is split into two buckets: $1.44 billion for states, allocated based on their state plans, and $1.25 billion in competitive grants open to government and non-government organizations.
The Commerce Department is expected to announce its state-level awards in February or March, Wendling told the workforce council.
Outreach events and advertising, adding more public computing terminals across the state (such as those located in libraries or universities), purchasing new or used digital devices for distribution to those in need, and expanding digital literacy and online safety courses are all listed as potential state goals.
“We’re not sure how many of our ideas or programs we’ll be able to implement,” he said. “As much as I would love to, and hopefully get to, address all of these, we don’t know how much funding we’re getting.”
Goldich said she’s reviewed the digital opportunity plans from every state that’s submitted one, and she sees a lot of promise in South Dakota’s roadmap. Most state plans scarcely mention outreach for connectivity.
“We applaud them for articulating very clear goals for the (affordable connectivity program),” Goldich said.
Nonprofits work to move needle
Not every city in South Dakota has struggled to connect the eligible to funding to the same degree. Sioux Falls has a 21% enrollment rate, for example, and several tribal communities have higher rates. Mission has a 78% enrollment rate; St. Francis sits at 100%.
On the other end of the spectrum are 126 cities with an enrollment rate less than 1%.
In Sisseton, the rate sits at 52% – higher than the national average of 41%.
Several factors have contributed to that success, according to Olivia DeBoer of Grow South Dakota, a Sisseton-based nonprofit that began navigation work in March through an FCC grant. Grow South Dakota helps connect people to emergency rent and energy assistance, DeBoer said, so it already had an internal mailing list of potential beneficiaries.
“We know they qualify because the programs have the same requirements,” DeBoer said.
The group also works to get the word out at community events with the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Tribe, and has worked with area state assistance offices to ask them to pass the word along about broadband assistance.
In Sioux Falls, a grant-funded navigator with South Dakota Voices for Peace has worked at a slower pace. That’s partly a measure of its target audience: immigrants and people with limited English skills. Voices for Peace Director Taneeza Islam said it takes about an hour to work through the online application process, and that’s often after several attempts at outreach.
Clients in Sioux Falls sometimes don’t have an internet connection, email address or devices that could get them one before they begin speaking with the Voices for Peace navigator. Islam’s office also doesn’t have a list of likely-eligible families at the ready, though it’s working with the Sioux Falls School District to connect with those who receive free or reduced-price lunch.
“If we can get 60 people enrolled in a month, that’s really great,” Islam said.
Best practices, uncertain future
Goldich said the best local results come from partnerships with other organizations, targeted outreach and a repetition of messaging.
“If you have a child who receives free or reduced price lunch, your entire household is eligible for the program,” said Goldich, who applauded the efforts to connect to those families in Sioux Falls.
Multi-agency partnerships in the community have helped in other states. In North Carolina, for instance, the state’s broadband office worked with the Division of Motor Vehicles to put information on the connectivity program in driver’s license exam offices.
The question of funding hangs heavy, Goldich said, and her group has a lot of hope that Congress will vote to support it. Internet service providers are lobbying for an extension, as are a host of other organizations. Connectivity also has also enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress and at the state level. Gov. Kristi Noem has pushed for broadband expansion throughout her years in the Governor’s Mansion, with progress tracked on the ConnectSD website. South Dakota’s digital opportunity plan even refers to broadband as “the fourth utility.”
Sen. Thune’s concerns, however, could signal snags for continued broadband subsidies. The recent letter to the FCC demands “a list of efforts by the FCC to target ACP funds to households that previously lacked broadband subscriptions, rather than those that already had broadband, amid a potential lapse in funding,” by Jan. 4.
DeBoer and Islam each said they’re encouraging those who sign up for the connectivity program to reach out to their congressional representatives to urge an extension, though, hoping that its value to those who truly couldn’t have internet without it carries the day.
“When people get connected, it’s just such a great feeling, because they’ll say, ‘Oh, now I can talk to my friends; I can see my grandkids,’” DeBoer said. “You can only hope that they see how many people have benefitted from this program and choose to keep it going.”
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