Federal funding could cheapen internet access for some in Coconino County

In a world increasingly dependent on web-based services and Internet access, affordable broadband can mean the difference between opportunities and severe limitations on personal and financial success and growth.

“By giving people broadband access, they can apply for jobs, go to online school, and get counseling even when they can’t get to it, especially when transportation is limited and people In rural areas where people may not be able to afford to pay, it’s either buy a car or own one,” said Andrea Melihew, manager of the Community Activities Division for Coconino County Health and Human Services.

She was among those who helped secure a $228,266 grant from the Federal Communications Commission to make Internet access more affordable for low-income individuals and families in the area.

The program has the potential to offer significant discounts and even free Internet access to single residents with an annual income of $27,000 or less and families of four with an annual income of $55,000 or less.

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“Those who qualify receive a $30 discount off their monthly internet bill. If you live on eligible tribal land, you get a $75 discount off your internet bill,” Merrihew said. “Some internet providers actually offer completely free internet access to some of these households, meaning you can put groceries on the table or get broadband access for any other service or support you need. It could actually mean you don’t have to take advantage of or choose between the two.”

Merihew calculated that single parents working 40 hours a week for minimum wage would be eligible for the program.

“There are many families who are eligible and need this assistance,” she said.

Melihew said that when programs like this are launched, people often don’t know they exist or don’t know how to apply.

“The grant actually started because the FCC realized that the program existed, but many people were unaware of it and didn’t know how to access it,” he said. Merrihew said.

That’s why the county has a “Navigator” program designed to help residents navigate through the hassles of applying for social services.

“The navigator model is a way of providing one-on-one support and application assistance directly to local clients. This is actually something we have piloted through the Department of Economic Security,” Merihew said. .

If you need access to services such as emergency rent assistance or utility payment assistance through the Department of Economic Security (DES) online portal, contact Coconino County Health and Human Services for direct assistance during the process. I can.

“We don’t just help you through the sometimes difficult and cumbersome process of making these online applications. We are advocates too. We’re looking into it so we can see if there’s a shortage,” Merihew said. “We work closely together as a support intermediary between our client and her DES.”

The FCC specifically designed the grant to support programs with a “navigator” element.

Part of Coconino County’s year-long pilot program includes hiring a coordinator to guide people through the process of accessing broadband discounts.

“This allowed us to provide one-on-one assistance and application assistance to all Coconino County residents, which is similar to what we are already doing,” Merrihew said. rice field. “With this funding, we will be hiring full-time employees on limited assignments until April 30, 2024. The grant itself is a sizable undertaking. and is responsible for all the casework that we already do, so basically this position is really connected to the community and all the community organizations that we work with. I will become a person who has the support of the residents and the public.”

Coconino County is one of only nine organizations in the nation to receive this specific grant from the FCC.

“I think a big factor in that was that geographically we are the second largest county in the nation. The poverty rate is quite high: our poverty rate is 16%, compared to the national average of about 12.5%,” Merihew said.

If Flagstaff were left out of the equation, extreme poverty rates would be even higher in the rest of Coconino County, she added.

In a post-pandemic world, escaping poverty can feel nearly impossible without access to a reliable internet connection.

“I think COVID-19 has really shown us that we need to help everyone to be on a level playing field. It’s the next step,” Merihew said. “Since COVID-19, the landscape of service delivery has changed.

Most social services, including this affordable connection program, are primarily available to: Applicants online.

For this program, individuals can apply in person at the county’s King Street location. You can also call us for more information.

Merihew said access to this funding is important to her team.

So one of the roles of the new recruits in this program is to meet people where they have tables at events and where other social services are available and make it as easy as possible for them to access discounts. .

“One of the ideas we came up with to ease the burden on residents was to find a place where there are other agencies, other It’s basically having stores where customers come,” Merihew said. He said.

The program officially began on May 1, and on Tuesday, May 9, the Coconino County Board of Supervisors voted to approve and accept FCC funding. The county also donated $7,200 to him as an in-kind match for the grant.

“If the pilot is successful, we expect this funding to continue to provide more navigation services across the country, and of course, in Coconino County,” Merihew said.

Sierra Ferguson can be reached at sierra.ferguson@lee.net.

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