RD194 - Virginia Department of Social Services Broadband Services Program – 2022

Executive Summary:

This report is submitted pursuant to the 2022 Appropriations Act Item 350 G, requiring the Virginia Department of Social Services (VDSS) to design a program to provide fixed reimbursement for broadband service costs for select households currently participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The rate of reimbursement shall not exceed $15 a month and shall be a structured direct payment to a broadband provider who offers a low-cost broadband service for low-income households in Virginia. Previously, the Department sought and received input from the former Commonwealth’s Chief Broadband Advisor for this report.

Families in Virginia face distinct challenges to accessing broadband services, including lack of physical infrastructure and affordability of high speed internet service. There are federal programs in place to help support access to broadband services, but the subsidy amount is too low for many families to afford the service. Congress created additional subsidies in the various COVID-19 relief packages, but the vast majority of those subsidies have already ended or will end by 2023.

Virginia can design a program to subsidize broadband connectivity for low-income Virginians either with or without significant ongoing state general funds by investing in capacity at VDSS to operate, with input from the Office of Broadband at the Department of Housing and Community Development, the federal broadband subsidy program on behalf of the federal government. This approach could improve access and increase enrollment among low-income Virginians.

The estimated one-time costs for program and Information Technology system development would be $3,394,000, with an ongoing need for three positions requiring $328,078 new dollars annually, to bring more than $130 million in federal benefits to Virginia households currently unable to afford broadband connectivity.

While our report last year recommended funding of a program in the Commonwealth, after careful consideration, VDSS has decided against requesting funding, as this program is unnecessary at this time due to the following: 1) the amount of funds already provided for additional broadband expansion, including the $65 billion in funds being distributed through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021; and 2) the creation of many new state and local programs to increase broadband access. Over the past year, VDSS has relayed information about the Affordable Connectivity Program through emails, social media, and the VDSS public website. VDSS will continue to make this information available to encourage participation in the numerous programs already available to address the need for affordable broadband connectivity.