Connecting state and local government leaders
State broadband offices say that a subsidy to help low-income households get online is key to national efforts to provide every American with access to high-speed internet.
As the nation embarks on spending billions to build broadband across the country and fulfill President Joe Biden’s promise to provide every American access to “affordable, reliable high-speed internet,” concerns are growing over whether low-income people will actually be able to afford it.
Under the 2021 infrastructure law, $42.5 billion was allocated to ensure every home and business had access to fast internet by 2030. An additional $14.2 billion was included to help low-income people get online. But unless a divided Congress agrees to spend billions more, the Affordable Connectivity Program, or ACP, is expected to run out of money in the spring.
If that happens, more than 21 million American households enrolled in the program will lose the $30 a month subsidy provided to lessen the digital divide. For many households, that assistance means less money for crucial items like prescriptions, groceries or gas, according to Angela Siefer, executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance.
“If ACP funding runs out,” she said. “They’re going to have a hard choice or face the harsh reality of not having internet access.”
“The program is almost like a victim of its own successes,” added Greg Guice, chief policy officer for Vernonburg Group, a broadband consulting firm. “It's running out of funding because it's done exactly what it was designed to do.”
Guice’s group warned last year that it would take $30 billion to $35 billion to ensure the ACP can continue for another five years. But with Congress locked in a battle over spending and the House currently focused on electing a new speaker, advocacy groups and state broadband directors are unclear if any money will be approved to continue the program.
Guice, though, says the ACP has bipartisan support in Congress and that lawmakers appear to understand the program’s importance. “But it’s not a done deal yet,” he said.
One major obstacle is that House Republicans are pushing to decrease federal spending next year. Even if the Senate Democrats were able to broker a deal to avoid cuts, government spending would likely not increase as senators adhere to the deal struck in June to avoid a default on the nation’s debt.
“They can’t figure out how to run Congress, let alone figure this out,” said Christine Hallquist, executive director of Vermont’s state broadband office.
Complicating matters further is that the program is running out of money at the same time as other important programs, including subsidies for child care providers. The ACP, in other words, is competing for attention on Capitol Hill, and Siefer says it doesn’t appear to be getting much.
“Nobody seems to be stepping up and saying really loudly and clearly that it has to be saved,” she said. “And my understanding of why is that they need to find money.”
Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Washington Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation committee, said last week that she is also concerned about the program running out of money.
“Broadband is essential for Americans,” she said. “So we need to figure out a way that people can do their homework and work from home.”
Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, said in a statement that he and 12 others in a Democratic group called the Regional Leadership Council, which works to create economic development initiatives around the country, would be pushing to make sure the program is successfully implemented.
“The ACP enjoys broad bipartisan support,” he said. “It is now incumbent on the majority party to pick up the baton and provide this critical program with additional funds to ensure its continuation.”
Rep. Bob Latta of Ohio, the Republican chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and co-chairman of the Rural Broadband Caucus, did not comment specifically on the program’s future. But he said in a statement that he has “long advocated for the expansion of high-speed broadband internet service for our unserved and underserved communities,” including strengthening a separate Federal Communications Commission program that funds broadband for rural health care facilities, as well as schools and libraries.
The uncertainty is also complicating states’ planning efforts for the $42.5 billion in Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program grants. The ACP is a “foundational” piece of states’ plans, Guice said, with many states saying they will require companies that receive funding under the program to offer the ACP discount to their low-income customers.
“We cannot build something that no one can afford to use,” said Nate Denny, deputy secretary for broadband and digital equity for the North Carolina Department of Information Technology. “Inability to afford an internet subscription is a huge barrier to internet adoption.”
Being able to continue funding the program is a “critical issue” for rural communities, which have higher rates of poverty than urban areas, said Vermont’s Hallquist.
“If people are on the wrong side of the digital divide, they're also on the wrong side of the economic divide,” she said.
That said, the program is still critical for urban areas. Linda Gerull, chief information officer for the city and county of San Francisco, said the percentage of low-income households on the program has increased in the past year from 24% to 30% of eligible households.
“There would be a significant impact if the funding was not continued,” she said. “ACP residents would lose internet access, impacting their ability to connect with jobs, schools, medical care and businesses.”
What’s more, Gerull added, if people on the program have to reenroll because the program is suspended, “it would be highly disruptive and we would expect a lesser number of residents to participate.”
That’s because signing up for the program can be complicated. Two of the biggest barriers to enrollment are understanding eligibility requirements and having the digital skills necessary to sign up.
“These federal programs lose ‘trust’ with low-income families when this happens and impact low-income residents in San Francisco in a significant way,” she said.
Kery Murakami is a senior reporter for Route Fifty, covering Congress and federal policy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @Kery_Murakami