LA County will offer discounted home internet to lower-income residents in some neighborhoods

With the federal government poised to cut subsidies for internet service, LA County has begun building a wireless broadband network that will deliver high-speed connections for as little as $25 per month.

The county announced this week that it had signed a contract with Lehi, Utah-based WeLink to build the network and offer the service in East Los Angeles, Boyle Heights and South Los Angeles. Qualifying households will get a $40 per month discount on WeLink’s rates, meaning they can get the basic 500 megabits per second service for $25 per month.

The contract brings a new internet provider to neighborhoods now served primarily by Spectrum and AT&T, which also offer discounted services to lower-income residents — albeit at much slower speeds. But it will take months for WeLink to build its network, which will rely on a series of rooftop antennas connected to the internet via existing fiber optic lines.

The looming loss of federal subsidies is a much more pressing problem. Unless Congress renews its funding, the Affordable Connectivity Program will expire this month, ending a $30 per month benefit that allowed 23 million lower-income households to obtain broadband service at little or no cost.

Read more: Millions of people could lose internet access in California if this program expires

LA County has more of these grant recipients than any other county in the country: 983,000 households, said Eric Sasaki, manager of major programs for the county’s Internal Services Department. The county’s enrollment numbers, he said, are higher than those in 45 states.

The province’s deal with WeLink has similar roots to the Affordable Connectivity Program, which grew out of the emergency broadband subsidy program the federal government launched at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2021, Sasaki said, the LA County Board of Supervisors decided to explore ways to bring high-speed internet to lower-income neighborhoods where more than 20% of homes lacked connectivity. Concerned about children struggling to attend online classes, the county looked at placing wireless Internet hubs in libraries, parks and even chain restaurants before deciding to implement demonstration projects in four regions: East LA/Boyle Heights, South LA, the northern part of the San Fernando Valley, and five cities in the southeastern part of the province.

The county has received $50 million in federal funds for the projects, but about $45 million will go toward the rollout in East LA and South LA, Sasaki said.

“We are also looking for additional sources of funding to implement additional projects,” he said.

Read more: Broadband internet is not equally available to low-income LA County residents, the report said

The demonstration projects “are kind of a proof of what is possible,” Sasaki said. “The idea was that these would be sustainable and long-term.”

WeLink’s service area in East LA and South LA covers more than 275,000 homes and small businesses within 42 square miles.

All or part of the following communities are to be served:

East Los Angeles, Boyle Heights, Lincoln Heights, Montecito Heights, El Sereno, Adams-Normandie, University Park, Historic South-Central, Exposition Park, Vermont Square, South Park, Central-Alameda, Chesterfield Square, Harvard Park, Vermont- Slauson, Florence, Florence-Firestone, Manchester Square, Vermont Knolls, Gramercy Park, Westmont, Vermont Vista, Broadway-Manchester, Green Meadows, Watts, Athens, Willowbrook, West Rancho Dominguez and Walnut Park.

Read more: Obtaining free internet is difficult for poor students, despite promises from providers, research shows

The company plans four service levels, with equal speeds for uploads and downloads: $65 per month for 500 Mbps, $75 for 1 gigabyte per second, $85 for 2 Gbps and $99 for small business connections. Installation and a router are included, WeLink CEO Luke Langford said.

Qualified homes will receive a $40 per month discount on the residential floors. The initial plan is to use the same eligibility requirement that the federal government uses for the Affordable Connectivity Program: households earning up to 200% of the federal poverty level, which would be $30,120 for a single person or $62,400 for a family of four. If the federal program is expanded, qualified households would be able to receive WeLink service at no cost.

If the program is not expanded, WeLink and the province will come up with an alternative benchmark, Langford said, adding that his company can feel comfortable offering the discounts under current terms.

The contract requires WeLink to offer discounted services to 50,000 households. Sasaki said the county would be happy if that many homes signed up for the $25 monthly service; If there is further demand, he said, the province will look for ways to support it.

Read more: The yawning digital divide among LA students is a civil rights issue, says Supt. says Carvalho

Studies show that lower-income households are less likely to have an internet connection at home, not because the service is unavailable, but mainly because it is unaffordable. Other problems include not having a computer or not knowing how to use one, as well as a lack of awareness about programs that can help users overcome these hurdles.

Sasaki said the province plans to address these issues with programs to provide free laptops and technical assistance from “digital navigators” in the communities served.

It was not an explicit goal of the community broadband program to encourage more competition among internet providers, but that is happening with the implementation of WeLink. And if Spectrum and AT&T lower their prices in response, Sasaki and Langford say, that’s another way the project will benefit specific communities.

WeLink uses unlicensed spectrum in the 60 gigahertz frequency band, meaning it doesn’t have to obtain over-the-air permits or tear up streets for new fiber optic lines. It will also design the network in a way that reduces the number of antennas needed to transport data.

These steps should speed up the network’s construction, Langford said. But WeLink still needs to make deals to mount its antennas on roofs, lights and street poles, he said, and to use the fiber optic lines that will connect its network to the Internet.

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Langford said he expects a “relatively modest” number of customers to be offered service by the end of the year, with the bulk of deployment going live in 2025 and beyond. People interested in the service can sign up for updates on the WeLink website.

The very high frequencies used by WeLink can transmit a huge amount of data, but unlike the lower frequencies used by radio stations and cell phones, they do not penetrate walls well. Langford said WeLink installers will use new cables or a building’s existing wiring to connect the rooftop antennas to routers in customers’ homes and businesses.

Founded in 2018, WeLink has built networks serving parts of Las Vegas, Phoenix, Dallas, Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles, Langford said.

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This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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