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Bringing Broadband to Multifamily Housing

It’s especially hard to get low-income Americans living in multifamily buildings across the digital divide. But states and nonprofits are finding ways to do it.

Public housing in Watts, Calif.
In Brief:
  •  Equitable broadband access is a shared goal at local, state and federal levels.
  •  Low-income families in multifamily housing are a badly underserved population. Federal dollars are available, but this sector presents unique infrastructure and affordability challenges.
  •  State and local governments and community-based organizations are finding ways to close this gap.

  • Tens of billions of federal dollars have been allocated to the pursuit of “Internet for all” over the next 10 years. This investment is driven by a conviction that every American needs high-speed access to “work, learn and compete in a 21st-century economy.”

    Getting a working connection to those in greatest need of a competitive boost is challenging, especially for low-income families who live in multifamily housing. The guidelines for the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program (BEAD) address that piece of the digital divide.

    BEAD funds can be used to install infrastructure and provide reduced-cost services in multifamily buildings. The program gives priority to those in places with an above-average number of households with incomes at or below 150 percent of the poverty line.

    How many households might this demographic include? The term “multifamily housing” is generally applied to buildings with five or more living units. The National Multifamily Housing Council (NMHC) uses this definition in their accounting of “apartment households” occupied by renters.

    According to NMHC’s analysis of Census data, more than one in four of these households have income below $20,000. This is less than 150 percent of poverty level for a household of just one person. (See table.)

    Based on Census estimates that the average household size is 2.5 persons, there’s potential to bring a significant share of all persons in multifamily dwellings online through BEAD support.

    A new analysis from the Pew Charitable Trusts looks at steps state and local governments are taking to get connections to these households, including public housing. It highlights place-based interventions that can serve as models for other efforts to address service availability and affordability, says Kathryn de Wit, director of Pew’s broadband access initiative.

    Defining Real-World Need

    The policy goal is to give every American a chance to use Internet-based resources to improve their lives. Part of the problem is that both data and definitions are imprecise.

    “Access” should mean that infrastructure exists, is actually connected to a building (not just available for installation) and that occupants are able to pay for service. Estimates of those without broadband access, which have ranged from 19 million to 42 million, refer to those who don’t have a provider nearby.

    According to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), one in five American households, 24 million, are offline. At the average 2.5 persons per household, the number of people without home broadband could be closer to 60 million than 42 million. Almost one in five of these households say they can’t afford service. (Nearly 60 percent aren’t interested.) The Pew Research Center has reported that more than 43 percent of households with income under $30,000 do not have a home broadband subscription.

    Jack Lynch is the COO of Education SuperHighway, a nonprofit established in 2012 to help connect all K-12 schools to high-speed Internet. The group partnered with governors in all 50 states to achieve this goal and in 2020 were on the way to “putting themselves out of business” by accomplishing it. Then the pandemic hit.

    “What was exposed by that was that 15 million students didn’t have Internet access at home, and they were effectively locked out of their education,” Lynch says. Education SuperHighway pivoted to a new mission, addressing the broadband affordability gap.

    By their estimates, 17 million households don’t have access because they can’t afford it, and about 4 million of them reside in low-income, multifamily housing. Progress can also be hampered because the maps states use for planning don’t take the internal wiring of multifamily buildings into account.

    According to FCC maps, a building is “covered” if a provider can bring connectivity to the front door, but that doesn’t mean that the infrastructure in the building will be sufficient to deliver high-speed service to residents. Lynch and his group are working with states to help them reclassify apartment buildings so they can be eligible for BEAD infrastructure dollars.

    Investments with Benefits

    Several of the programs highlighted in the Pew report involve state-level investments, a recognition that federal dollars alone may not meet the higher costs that come with bringing connectivity to older buildings or residents who can’t afford service. California created a Broadband Public Housing Account within its Advanced Services Fund that provides grants and loans for providing free broadband services to housing developments for low-income residents, including publicly supported housing and mobile home parks.

    States can receive economic, social and quality-of-life benefits from such investments, de Wit says. Property managers experience the efficiencies that come from moving their operations online.

    The Virginia Office for Broadband has used COVID-19 relief funds to support several broadband projects for low-income households. One, in Portsmouth, brought the Internet to 1,000 public housing units through a “mesh network” — a system built around multiple Wi-Fi nodes rather than a single access point.

    There are market incentives as well. Owners of affordable housing care as much about retaining tenants as other landlords. Internet connections can add to the value of the service they provide, and the cost is only $5 to $20 per unit, Lynch says. Some states have begun to require owners to provide connectivity as a condition for receiving Low-Income Housing Tax Credits.

    The Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) provides up to $30 per month to households at or below 200 percent of poverty level to pay for Internet service. Education SuperHighway has created what Lynch describes as “TurboTax” for ACP, a web and phone-based tool that takes applicants through the process. De Wit would like to see changes to the ACP’s operations model to allow all residents in an affordable housing unit to sign up at once.

    Drawing on experience and relationships developed during its work on school connectivity, Education SuperHighway is consulting with broadband offices to help them with plans that make the most of BEAD opportunities. It is also helping public and private building owners and managers with the implementation of free propertywide networks for multifamily buildings, a solution known as managed service or “hotel Wi-Fi.”
    Households below 200 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible for support from the Affordable Connectivity Program.

    Understanding Local Needs

    Affordable housing proponents may not be aware that bringing broadband connectivity to multifamily buildings is a core use of BEAD dollars, says Angela Siefer, executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. They can help advocate at the state level for plans that encompass these buildings.

    It’s not enough to use FCC maps as the basis for such plans, she says, echoing the limitations that concern Lynch. Local knowledge will be essential to understanding the scope of work.

    In addition to their income challenges, residents in low-income or subsidized housing are more likely to be older, living with disabilities or to speak English as a second language, de Wit notes. Blacks and Hispanics are disproportionately represented in this community. State and local leaders need to understand and consider needs ranging from building structure to the digital literacy of residents as they design their programs.

    The pandemic made it clear that equitable access to basic opportunities depends on Internet connections, Lynch says. His group never encounters pushback about the need to make sure all low-income Americans have this service.

    “Where there's conversation is how do we do it right? How do we deploy the resources coming to us from these federal programs to reach that goal?”
    Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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