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Loss of internet subsidies for NC residents has potential health effects

A map showing underserved broadband serviceable areas in North Carolina is displayed during the 2024 Rural Summit in Raleigh.
Jaymie Baxley
NC Health News
A map showing underserved broadband serviceable areas in North Carolina is displayed during the 2024 Rural Summit in Raleigh.

Time is almost up for about 900,000 North Carolina households that receive federal subsidies for broadband internet access. Congress approved the $14.2 billion Affordable Connectivity Program in 2021, when the pandemic made high-speed internet more vital than ever. Funding for the program is about to run out, with enrollees expected to lose their subsidies in April. That loss would mean more than just no more internet for some.

Reporter Jaymie Baxley wrote about it for North Carolina Health News, and he joins me now.

Marshall Terry: We’ll get to the broader picture in just a moment. First though, just who qualified for these subsidies? And where do they live in North Carolina?

Jaymie Baxley: So the program was open to anyone whose income was at or below 200% of the federal poverty level. People who were enrolled in certain assistance programs, like SNAP and Medicaid, were also eligible. In terms of where these folks live, we do know that, that criterion I just described, there's a lot of overlap in rural communities. We have a lot of Medicaid participants in rural communities. We have a lot of SNAP beneficiaries in rural communities.

Terry: Now you write this goes beyond just being able to watch Netflix, right? There’s also a health component here. How so?

Baxley: Well, absolutely. Reliable high-speed internet is almost a prerequisite for participating in telehealth services and the ability to meet with a health care provider virtually can be a real lifeline to people in rural communities, who face physical barriers to care. For example, a lot of people in rural areas are forced to travel great distances to see a provider in person. That can be an issue if you don't have transportation. And so that's one barrier that telehealth can kind of help overcome.

Terry: Telehealth really took off during the pandemic. But now that that’s over, is there still as great a need for it? I mean, I guess it sounds like there is for some people, right?

Baxley: So according to the North Carolina Telehealth Network Association, telehealth accounted for about 80% of the state’s patient visits in 2020 — that was, you know, when we couldn't go see providers in person. That share has since dropped to about 15%, but 15% is still a sizable chunk. I think it's also important to consider online health services outside of telehealth. Think about people who fill prescriptions online, or maybe people who join online support groups on social media.

Terry: Now while this is happening, North Carolina is in the midst of a $2.5 billion plan to improve broadband infrastructure across the state. Could that help these folks who depend on these internet subsidies?

Baxley: Well, no, not really. I mean that infrastructure plan will certainly make broadband more available in underserved areas. It will not help people pay for it. I mean, affordability is really key when it comes to broadband adoption. And the success of that infrastructure plan in a lot of ways hinges on people being able to pay for high-speed internet.

Terry: So this just puts the internet in place. It doesn’t replace those subsidies that they use to pay for that internet, right?

Baxley: Right.

Terry: So why is the funding drying up for this federal Affordable Connectivity Program?

Baxley: So the $14.2 billion that was initially set aside for the program has been depleted, and Congress has not approved the additional funding needed to keep the program going. There have been some efforts made to, to move that forward. But, so far, but it's all kind of stalled and looking increasingly unlikely that the program will be funded past April.

So I recently spoke with Sara Nichols. She's a senior planner for Land of Sky Regional Council. Last year, she gave testimony to Congress about the importance of the ACP. She told me recently that she is not optimistic that this funding will get extended before it runs out.

The issue, she said, is whether or not people will be willing to buy in. She says it's going to be difficult to, sort of, rebuild that trust among people who had this benefit and then were forced to disconnect.

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Marshall came to WFAE after graduating from Appalachian State University, where he worked at the campus radio station and earned a degree in communication. Outside of radio, he loves listening to music and going to see bands - preferably in small, dingy clubs.