Most of Berkshire County is wired for high-speed internet, but not every household can afford it.
Now, a $65 billion federal initiative that is part of President Joe Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is designed to close that gap here and across the US using tax dollars and the help of large internet providers.
Residents can find out whether they qualify based on income or participation in various government assistance programs, or if they live on Tribal lands.
As of May 1, 6,265 households in the Berkshires have enrolled, according to federal data.
Under the Affordable Connectivity Program, qualifying households will pay no more than $30 per month for high-speed internet, for as long as the program’s funds are available. Depending on the company, some will only be able to give a $30 discount on internet bills.
The 20 largest internet providers have agreed to either cut prices or hike internet speeds for the best use of taxpayer dollars going towards the program, according to a fact sheet from the White House. Those companies have pledged to offer high-speed plans for $30 or less. Others can only offer a $30 discount.
Combined with the program benefit, some households could get service for free.
Other providers that serve the Berkshires, including Hughes Network Systems LLC and EARTHLINK, LLC are also participating in the program. A search tool linked by the White House website can help people find these 1,300 providers who will give the program discount.
The White House website also has more information and links for residents to find out if they are eligible and how to apply.
Websites of large providers like Spectrum also provide links to the application and explain how the program works. Spectrum’s site says that new households applying “could get 100 Mbps download speeds for just $29.99 per month, and includes a modem, in-home WiFi and self-installation at no additional charge.”
Spectrum also says that “qualified households receive up to a $30 monthly credit toward Internet service — which means eligible customers can get Spectrum Internet 100 at no monthly cost.”
The program also offers a discount on a computer or tablet from some companies.
Broadband connectivity has long been a sore spot in the Berkshires, but that’s largely changed in the last few years with a big push by the county’s more rural towns,, as well as the state. Some towns are being connected now.
The Massachusetts Broadband Institute and the state are still working to help get infrastructure into those remaining areas that don’t have the building blocks, said Brian Noyes, director of communications and marketing for the state’s MassTech Collaborative.
High-speed internet is available to about 94 percent of Berkshire County households, according to Federal Trade Commission data.
Not all households subscribe to an internet provider. Only 70.5 percent of households have subscriptions for some type of internet service, including DSL, according to Census data crunched by Microsoft in 2020. Microsoft’s own data showed that 73.3 percent are using the internet at broadband speeds.
But using Microsoft data, USA Today reported last year that only 39 percent of Berkshire County households have broadband.
Regardless, the Biden administration and lawmakers are launching a campaign to get the country online. Massachusetts and some other states plan to text millions of residents who are eligible for subsidized internet.
The office of US Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, will highlight the program on social media and in-person visits, said Margaret Boyle, Neal’s director of communications.
Boyle said it is the “more rural communities” in western and central Massachusetts that need attention, since they tend to have wider digital divides.
Town officials in Sheffield, for instance, have said they are aware that a number of residents don’t have an internet subscription because they can’t afford it.
State Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox, says he doesn’t hear a lot of constituents complain about not being able to afford internet, but he knows there are “pockets of neighborhoods” where people are quietly going without service.
“Broadband is expensive,” he said. “I know I cringe every time I get my bill.”
Pignatelli would love to take this federal plan a step further by having companies give state-subsidized housing at a price break, for instance.
“In congregate housing, there should be a bulk discount [for internet],” he said. “You’ve got one line coming in, you don’t need to send out 50 different bills.”