Thousands of southeastern NC residents will likely lose discount for internet service 

By Sarah Nagem

Tens of thousands of people in rural southeastern North Carolina are set to lose access to a federal program that helps pay for internet service.

The Affordable Connectivity Program allows eligible residents to save up to $30 on their monthly internet bill. But the program for low-income families is set to end in May unless Congress agrees to extend its funding.

More than 900,000 households across North Carolina are enrolled in the program, data shows. That includes about 41,000 in Bladen, Columbus, Robeson and Scotland counties. 

Sign up for our free newsletter.

Robeson has the ninth highest number of enrolled households in the state, with about 22,500. 

“ACP starting to wind down is definitely going to be an issue for all of North Carolina, and particularly rural North Carolina,” said Michael Kelly, director of collaborative broadband and innovation at the NC Rural Center.

The importance of high-speed internet became more apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic when schools closed and many companies switched to remote work. The state and federal governments have poured millions of dollars into expanding broadband access across North Carolina. 

But access means little if households can’t afford monthly internet service, advocates say. 

The stipend from the Federal Communications Commission began in late 2020 as part of a pandemic relief package passed by Congress. The following year, lawmakers approved more than $14 billion to extend the program. Another extension has bipartisan support, but Congress hasn’t acted on it. 

“Affordable and reliable broadband connections are necessary for the long-term success of eastern North Carolina. It’s essential for kids at school, workers, and communities,” Rep. Don Davis, a Democrat who serves many northeastern counties, said in a statement released last month by the Problem Solvers Caucus. “Constituents continue to voice a deep interest in the Affordable Connectivity Program and the need to keep it.”

Internet access has improved significantly in the Border Belt region over the past several years. About 45% of Robeson County residents had access to fiber internet in 2021, up from 35% in 2017, data shows. In Columbus County, the figure jumped from 27% to 53%.  

But the region still lags behind much of the state in connectivity, data shows. In Bladen County, about 74% of residents had access to internet speeds of at least 100 megabytes per second in 2021, compared to about 96% statewide. In Scotland County, less than 1% of residents had access to broadband in 2021. 

The pandemic expedited the expansion of high-speed internet, said Jody Heustess, vice president of marketing and sales at FOCUS Broadband, which serves about 68,000 customers in several eastern North Carolina counties. He said a wave of federal and state grants have allowed FOCUS to expand to new areas, including Robeson County, where 1,200 households have signed up for internet service. 

“Our goal has been to try to bring fast, affordable internet to people who don’t have it,” Heustess said. “That’s where our growth has come from over the past four or five years with the grants.” 

He added: “People who have been waiting 25 years to get fast, reliable internet are signing up.” 

Despite the increase in subscribers, Heustess said only about 3% of FOCUS customers participate in the Affordable Connectivity Program. He said many customers likely didn’t know about the program, although FOCUS advertised it on social media and through local schools. 

Donna Bullard, chief executive of Star Communications, which serves about 21,000 customers in Sampson and Bladen counties, said many customers are worried about the end of the Affordable Connectivity Program. “They don’t know if they’ll be able to keep the service or not.” 

Bullard said internet providers will likely have to think about new ways to ease the financial burden on customers if the program ends. But the cost to lay fiber continues to increase, she said, adding that Star pays about $40,000 per mile. 

Another FCC program, Lifeline, provides a monthly discount of up to $9.25 for eligible low-income residents who subscribe to some telephone or broadband services. FOCUS matches the discount, Heustess said, so customers could pay less than $10 a month for high-speed internet. 

High-speed internet plays a crucial role in a community’s economic development and residents’ health, Kelly said. 

“We at the Rural Center look at broadband as a very vital utility,” he said, “just as water or wastewater.”  

Wireless network technology with wifi sign, 3d rendering. Digital drawing.