LA County offers 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 work on a wireless broadband network that will offer high-speed connections for as little as $25 a month.

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

The contract brings a new Internet provider to neighborhoods now primarily served by Spectrum and AT&T, which also offer discounted service to lower-income residents, albeit at much lower speeds. But WeLink will need months to build its network, which will be based on a series of rooftop antennas connected to the Internet via existing fiber optic lines.

The impending loss of federal grants is a much more immediate problem. Unless Congress renews its funding, the Affordable Connectivity Program will expire this month, ending a $30-a-month benefit that has allowed 23 million lower-income households to get broadband service at a cost low or not at all

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 Department of Internal Services. The counties’ enrollment, he said, is higher than that of 45 states.

The counties’ agreement with WeLink has similar roots to the Affordable Connectivity Program, which grew out of the emergency broadband grant 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 quickly bring high-speed Internet to low-income neighborhoods where more than 20 percent of homes were not connected. Concerned about children struggling to attend online classes, the county looked at putting wireless Internet hubs in libraries, parks and even chain restaurants before deciding to conduct demonstration projects in four regions: East LA/ Boyle Heights, South LA, the northern part of San. Vall de Fernando, and five cities in the southeastern part of the region.

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

We are also looking for additional funding sources to help run additional projects, he said.

Demonstration projects are kind of a test of what’s possible, Sasaki said. The idea was that these would be sustainable and in the long term.

WeLinks East LA and South LA service area covers over 275,000 homes and small businesses within 68 square miles.

All or part of the following communities must 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.

The company plans four tiers of service, 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 will be included, WeLink chief executive Luke Langford said.

Qualifying homes will receive a $40 per month discount on residential levels. 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 individual or $62,400 for a family of four. If the federal program is expanded, qualifying households could receive WeLink service at no cost.

If the program isn’t expanded, WeLink and the county will come up with an alternative metric, Langford said, adding that his company is comfortable offering the discounts under current conditions.

The contract calls for WeLink to provide discounted service to 50,000 households. Sasaki said the county would be delighted if as many homes signed up for the $25-a-month service; if there is still more demand, he said, the county will look for ways to support it.

Surveys show that lower-income households are less likely to have a home Internet connection not because the service is not available, but primarily because it is unaffordable. Other problems include not owning or knowing how to use a computer, as well as a lack of knowledge of programs that can help users overcome these obstacles.

Sasaki said the county plans to address these issues with programs to provide free laptops and digital browser technical support to the communities it serves.

It was not an explicit goal of the Community Broadband Program to bring about more competition among Internet providers, but that is happening with the rollout of WeLink. And if Spectrum and AT&T lower their prices in response, Sasaki and Langford said, that’s another way the project will benefit target communities.

WeLink uses unlicensed spectrum in the 60 gigahertz frequency band, which means it does not need to obtain airwaves permits or break ground for new fiber optic lines. It will also design the network to reduce the number of antennas needed to carry data.

Those steps should speed up the construction of the network, Langford said. But WeLink still has to make arrangements to mount its antennas on rooftops, lights and street poles, he said, as well as to use the fiber-optic lines that will connect its network to the Internet.

Langford said he expects a relatively modest number of customers to be offered service by the end of the year, with the bulk of the rollout in operation by 2025 and beyond. Those interested in the service can sign up for updates on the WeLink website.

The very high frequencies used by WeLink can transmit an enormous amount of data, but unlike the lower frequencies used by radio stations and cell phones, they don’t travel well through walls. Langford said WeLink installers will use new cables or existing building wiring to connect rooftop antennas to routers inside 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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