Broadband Access Challenges Persist for Residents of Federally Subsidized Multifamily Housing

But availability of federal infrastructure money creates opportunities to close service gaps

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Broadband Access Challenges Persist for Residents of Federally Subsidized Multifamily Housing
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Despite increasing recognition of the importance of broadband, many residents of federally subsidized public and multifamily housing have no access to high-speed internet service. Others may be able to get online only in restricted spaces, such as common areas, or have access in their units that is unreliable or unaffordable.

In 2016, the most recent year for which data is available, the ConnectHome Baseline Internet Access Survey found that only 34% of public housing households had high-speed internet access, 35% were underconnected, and 31% had no access at all. ConnectHome is a cross-sector collaboration working to expand broadband availability for households that receive assistance from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

This limited broadband access, meanwhile, can exacerbate long-standing economic and societal inequities. To shrink the gap, federal lawmakers last year included billions of dollars in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 (IIJA) to help bring high-speed interest service to more Americans, including those in public and other federally assisted, multifamily housing.

Residents of such housing are disproportionately members of groups that are already less likely to be connected than the national average: low-income households, people over 65, and people with disabilities. With greater access, residents would be able to attend online classes, apply to jobs online, and access resident services more easily, among other common internet uses these days.

The federal government has long recognized the need to help more Americans get online, with multiple programs and policies across federal agencies. A 2017 HUD rule requires installation of broadband infrastructure for new construction or substantial rehabilitation of any multifamily rental housing receiving HUD funding. Still, this rule covers only a small portion of the federal housing stock.

Federally subsidized multifamily housing tends to be located in areas that have already faced historic disinvestment. Internet service providers (ISPs), meanwhile, tend to focus upgrades on areas where more households can afford service and decline to install or upgrade wiring in low-income neighborhoods. Factors such as these make it difficult for residents of low-income housing to access affordable broadband service.

Public and other federally assisted, multifamily housing poses unique challenges for broadband access and adoption, in part because many developments were built before it was common practice to wire all buildings for internet service. Infrastructure constraints then make adding new wiring difficult. Some developments also have existing contracts with ISPs that limit how they can provide broadband to residents, such as prohibiting building-wide Wi-Fi. 

Complicating the situation, the application and eligibility verification processes for initiatives such as Lifeline and the Affordable Connectivity Program can be burdensome. For example, many applicants struggle to navigate the online application requirements without an existing broadband connection and some face hurdles in getting their documentation approved. Both initiatives provide subsidies to households to offset the monthly costs of a connection or the long-term cost of devices. And even when service is available, residents of federally assisted, multifamily housing often need support services such as digital literacy training. These factors add costs that can make establishing connections a challenge for housing providers already working with limited funding.

The 2017 HUD rule has helped to ensure that all new and substantially renovated HUD-funded housing is built for modern broadband needs, but much HUD-funded housing does not fall into either of these categories. At the same time, housing providers may not have the resources on their own to install broadband in existing units that are not up for renovation.

In recognition of this challenge, public housing organizations were listed as eligible recipients or projects for the $65 billion broadband provisions in the IIJA. This funding presents a rare opportunity to improve connectivity for communities that are on the wrong side of the digital divide.

Two programs created through the IIJA—Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) and State Digital Equity Planning Grants—establish both infrastructure and adoption funding uses that could benefit residents of  federally assisted, multifamily housing. For instance, BEAD prioritizes projects that provide fiber connections to end users in unserved locations, which can include a single unserved location. That means an unserved building could qualify even if the surrounding neighborhood has service. The rules also specifically say that Wi-Fi deployment in multifamily buildings is an eligible use of funds. BEAD requires all projects to provide a low-cost option to “eligible subscribers,” which include households receiving federal rental assistance.

States and territories that have developed plans to bring affordable high-speed broadband service to their unserved and underserved locations also may allocate funding for digital literacy, broadband sign-up assistance and technology support, digital navigators, and subsidies toward broadband subscriptions. Digital navigators work with community members to make use of connections through device and digital skills assistance. Offering these services could make a big difference in helping low-income households make full use of new connections and get online.

The digital equity program also recognizes the importance of these nondeployment uses so that people can fully participate in the digital economy. States will receive funding to create digital equity plans to address the issues that go beyond access to basic service. Each plan must include “an implementation strategy that is holistic and addresses the barriers to participation in the digital world, including affordability, devices, digital skills, technical support, and digital navigation.”

Both programs emphasize the importance of engaging diverse groups of stakeholders in developing plans and suggest including public housing authorities or operators of HUD-assisted housing in the process. For the Digital Equity Act Planning and Capacity Grant programs, a public or multifamily housing authority can be designated the “administering entity” to receive and administer grants and develop plans.

As state policymakers begin to develop plans to take advantage of these federal programs, they should consider how to address connectivity challenges in low- and moderate-income housing. Housing stakeholders, meanwhile, should be sure to engage with their state broadband offices to offer input.

Additional research is needed on the state of broadband access, affordability, and adoption in public and multifamily housing. The Pew Charitable Trusts will continue to work on these critical issues as public housing authorities, housing providers, and communities throughout the country prepare to receive these funds.

Anna Read is a senior officer and Kelly Wert is an associate with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ broadband access initiative.

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