The Industry

Broadband for Low-Income Housing

In April of this year, Kathryn de Wit of the Pew Charitable Trusts released what I consider to be the definitive article defining the broadband gap in low-income housing. I’ve discussed her paper before, but as we finally approach the start of the BEAD grant process, I wanted to highlight the findings from her report. While BEAD grant funding is supposed to be available to bring broadband to unserved and underserved homes everywhere, I have to wonder how much funding will be provided in most states to tackle this issue – which is mostly found in cities.

I think its universally understood that homes need broadband to take part in modern life. Just in my own life, it seems that month after month and year after year, that more of the functions I do now involve broadband. Just one example, I recently had some doctor visits, and a lot of the process is now online to register prior to the visit and to get my results from lab tests. This was not part of the process for my doctor just a year ago – but seemingly everything we do is migrating online.

Pew interviews with low-income households showed that some of the most important benefits of broadband for low-income homes include reduced isolation and increased social connection, support for aging in place, access to education, health care and wellness, job training, financial services, and the opportunity to apply for and find jobs. Several major studies have documented the positive impact for students who have broadband and computers in the home.

The Pew paper describes the lack of broadband for low-income housing as being the result of several issues. First is that ISPs, in many cases, are not building fiber or other modern infrastructure to subsidized housing. When an ISP builds fiber near a low-income apartment building, it often bypass the building and don’t offer fiber. While ISPs won’t publicly say it, this is due to an expectation of low returns on the investment of building a fiber drop, wiring the units, and providing the electronics.

Another issue is a shift away from community technology centers – places where WiFi broadband and computers are made available to the public. This is a movement that was already underway before the pandemic and which became the norm during COVID shutdowns. This means there must be a bigger emphasis on getting broadband and computers into living units.

But the biggest issue continues to be affordability. Pew research from 2021 showed that 43% of households with incomes under $30,000 did not have a broadband connection – which compares to 8% for homes with incomes over $75,000 per year. 45% of people without home broadband said they can’t afford a monthly broadband subscription, and 37% said they can’t afford a computer. The household income issue is even more acute in public housing, where the average household income in a 2016 study was just over $14,000 per household.

A large survey conducted by the NTIA of homes without broadband showed that the average amount that those living in subsidized households said they could afford was just $10 per month, although over half of homes said they couldn’t afford any amount. A 2021 survey by Everyone On shows that 40% of households with incomes of $50,000 said they can’t afford broadband, while 22% said they could afford to pay as much as $25 per month.

As you might imagine, there are a lot of challenges in getting better broadband to public housing:

  • Broadband subscriptions are not included in the HUD utility allowance. This is a funding mechanism that covers electricity, gas, and water fees in public housing. It’s time to recognize that a broadband subscription is a household need and not a luxury.
  • While BEAD grants theoretically cover bringing broadband to apartment buildings that need it, it’s a challenge to prove the areas are underserved since urban maps often claim ubiquitous broadband coverage from cable companies. The BEAD process is also incredibly unfriendly for filing grants for small areas like a single building due to the complexity of the requirements.
  • ACP funding has allowed many low-income households to get broadband. But unless Congress acts soon, that fund will run dry by next spring. The ACP rules also require individuals to apply for the subsidy. In a low-income housing building, everybody qualifies for ACP by definition, yet there is no mechanism for enrolling a building in ACP. Most other benefits for low-income housing are funded by the building instead of by individual tenants.

I’ve predicted for the last several years that the next big push for broadband connectivity will be in cities. As states start allocating rural grants for BEAD, it will likely become obvious that little has been done to help most cities. I think this is going to be a harder issue to solve than the rural broadband gaps because the big cable companies are going to fight anybody that tries to bring broadband into what they consider as their turf – even where they aren’t serving. But if the goal is to get everybody onto broadband, this is an issue we need to tackle and solve.

4 replies on “Broadband for Low-Income Housing”

There’s a pygmy pachyderm in that room. Don’t fixate on FTTP (premises / apt.). Leverage various mandates (e.g. my SRO has POTS and coax in every room) to craft a hybrid solution.

Start with FTTN (node = cable room). Put in a bridge chassis with Wi-Fi and either cable modems or DSL. The Wi-Fi is there for new tenants / visitors and as an anchor node for a mesh network (remember Meraki ?). The casual users would be on DSL because it’s cheap. The serious users would be on a cable modem.

There are probably several inexpensive chassis out there that can hold a fiber uplink and both a small bank of cable modems and a baby DSLAM. A gigabit-capable Ethernet switch’s ports would connect to wireless access points and future expansion chassis. Also, do NOT be afraid of going cheap. One might be able to get by with just the DSLAM because only one or two tenants want the cable modem option and can be served with freestanding units instead of a pricey rack.

P.S. Rumor has it that the SRO I live in has a fiber drop for office use – Ethernet and VOIP. In my case I would be happy to buy a pair of cable modems to tie into that drop. But my landlord’s staff are not very open to technology upgrades.

This comment comes from Joseph Webster from Montgomery County, MD:

Thank you for highlighting this issue, Doug. Here in Montgomery County (MD), we have been working to address the broadband gap in low-income housing for several years. We leveraged our county owned and operated fiber optic network to develop county-provided in-home internet and Wi-Fi service for low-income and special needs residents. We call this service “MoCoNet”, which we launched in September 2020 with free, in-home 50 Mbps/50 Mbps symmetrical internet and Wi-Fi service for qualifying residents. We have since upgraded the speeds to 100 Mbps/100 Mbps symmetrical and expanded the locations served. MoCoNet now passes 355 residences in four affordable housing developments and is scheduled to reach an additional 336 residences in two additional affordable housing developments by December 2023. We provide 24 x 365 telephone support for these low-income and special needs residents as well as providing the Plume HomePass smart home service suite to theses residents in partnership with Plume. We have also worked hard to encourage and support Affordable Connectivity Program enrollment and over 20,600 households in Montgomery County have enrolled in the ACP thus far, which is 102% of our predicted enrollment (as predicted by the Benton Foundation methodology). MoCoNet and ACP enrollment are two important parts of our “Montgomery Connects” digital equity program, a summary of which can be found here Montgomery Connects (

I actually think this is the ONLY broadband struggle in America. Standard capitolism would and has been handling this wherever the government doesn’t shell out money to create monopololies.

However, lower income areas are at the bottom of the list for most providers to expand. When most consumers in that area will opt for the cheapest plan, a provider can only offer a higher grade minimum product to even consider coming in and then there’s all the issues with getting paid that low income areas have.

I think there’s a lot of good intentino on the Affordable Connectivity Program, it’s not perfect and it’s lacking in ways that would encourage expansion. I would alter that to offer a certain number of years of guarantee subsidy via a coupon that comes with basically any other public support system. That couple to function basically like a gift card with a fixed amount on it that the customer can spend on any service and it auto replentishes at least for the term of the program.

Then, the ISP which would have the most opportunity to cheat the system can’t cheat it. They offer up their standard services and there’s pressure to not inflate those because there are other customers they’d lose if they did. Low income folks can put their ‘ACP EBT’ number in to cover a portion of the services and the ISP is none the wiser.

As an ISP…. I don’t trust ISPs lol. We’ve pulled customers over from too many shady setups AND as an ISP I really really don’t want to know or handle any sort of low income ‘stuff’, best that all customers are just regular customers in my eyes.

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