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ACP Update

An Internet Connectivity Lifeline for Millions Is About to Go Dark

The Affordable Connectivity Program is about to come to an end—unless Congress does something.

Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images
Marisol Coronado, 54, is one of the 700,000 people in Los Angeles County who will be affected when the Affordable Connectivity Program comes to an end.

A program intended to help low-income Americans connect to the internet is likely to disappear at the end of this month, and its supporters in Congress have limited options to keep it afloat. Although the Affordable Connectivity Program—used by roughly 23 million households to obtain broadband access—enjoys bipartisan and bicameral support, it’s uncertain whether Congress will be able to pass a measure to extend it  before the end of May, its final month of funding.

The Affordable Connectivity Program provided up to $30 monthly subsidies on internet bills for low-income families, and as much as $75 in monthly discounts for eligible households on tribal lands. Without additional funding, the ACP already stopped accepting new enrollment in February. April was also the final month of full funding for the program, and the Federal Communications Commission was only able to offer partial reimbursement for participating internet providers in the month of May: The available discount for nontribal households dropped to $14 per month and to $35 for families on tribal lands.

Supporters of the ACP argue that it is a necessity for low-income Americans to participate in daily life. “We know that connectivity is one of the important, necessary parts of living life in the twenty-first century,” said GOP Senator J.D. Vance, one of the program’s staunchest supporters in Congress, in a speech on the Senate floor on Thursday. A recent national survey by the Benenson Strategy Group found that 95 percent of ACP recipients said they would struggle with costs if the program expired, 75 percent said they would worry about losing access to telehealth services, and 65 percent would fear job loss. The same survey found that 49 percent of ACP participants are military families, 26 percent live in rural areas, and 19 percent are households with seniors.

But the path forward for extending the ACP is murky. There are few must-pass bills that will be considered between now and November, giving few opportunities to attach an extension to a larger measure. Passing a stand-alone bill may also be difficult, in no small part due to political considerations; Congress often struggles to work on bipartisan legislation in the months before an election.

A group of senators had attempted to attach an amendment extending the ACP to the bill reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration, which was approved without amendment votes on Thursday night. That reauthorization bill will now receive a vote in the House, and it seems unlikely that there will be any ACP-related amendments attached to the legislation in the lower chamber.

Nonetheless, supporters of the ACP are working to find another path for extension. A congressional aide familiar with negotiations said that “the FAA is not the end of the runway for the ACP.”

“We’re keeping every possible option open to fund this program past May. Millions of families, seniors, and veterans rely on this program—we need to make moves,” the aide said.

One option is the ACP Extension Act, which would provide an additional $7 billion in funding to keep the program afloat. Representative Yvette Clarke, the lead sponsor of that bill in the House, indicated in a statement that she would continue to press for its passage.

If there is one thing Democrats and Republicans should be able to agree on, it is the ACP. We have an opportunity to do so right now—and we must act before it’s too late,” Clarke said.

Meanwhile, Senator Ben Ray Luján, the lead sponsor of the amendment to the FAA reauthorization measure, has filed it as a stand-alone bill. The Luján amendment, which garnered bipartisan support, attempted to address some of the criticisms of the ACP. It would provide $6 billion for the program, lower than the $7 billion offered by the ACP Extension Act. It would also cut the income threshold to 135 percent of the federal poverty line, down from 200 percent, end eligibility based on the Agriculture Department Community Eligibility Provision, and eliminate a one-time $100 subsidy for wireless devices.

An October study by USC Annenberg found that lowering the poverty threshold would result in about 7.4 million households that currently qualify for the ACP becoming ineligible; as not everyone eligible for the program is currently enrolled, this could result in roughly three million households losing the benefit.

But some supporters say targeting eligibility would not necessarily be a bad thing. “Just earlier this week, the president of a local internet service provider said he was informed that he’s eligible for the $30 a month because the school lunch program in [West Virginia] makes everybody eligible,” Republican Senator Shelley Moore Capito said in a hearing last week, saying that while she is “supportive of the program,” she believes “we’ve got to narrow it down to the need.”

John Heitmann, the outside counsel for the National Lifeline Association, said that narrowing the eligibility would still ensure that those who need the program the most would be able to obtain it. “They’re people who have trouble connecting to the internet every month and make choices whether to buy food or connectivity,” said Heitmann.

The changes in the amendment are reflective of some hard opposition in Congress. Several Republicans have raised concerns about whether the ACP truly connected a new population of Americans to the internet, and whether it is duplicative of a preexisting program to help low-income families secure broadband access. GOP Senator Ted Cruz has argued that the program Lifeline, which is also intended to lower internet costs, renders the ACP redundant. (Lifeline offers lower subsidies and has a 135 percent income threshold.)

In a hearing last week, economist Paul Winfree, a former Trump administration official, argued that the ACP had counterintuitively increased internet costs by subsidizing demand. Skeptics also note that low-income households in rural areas were less likely to take advantage of the program than urban Americans. However, at least one model found that more rural households had used the program than initially predicted. Vance argued in his speech on Thursday that the program encouraged investment in rural areas.

“The guarantee that consumers will be able to pay their internet bills regardless of their income level is one of the things that makes it possible for a lot of companies to invest in rural broadband infrastructure,” said Vance.

Other critics also worry that the ACP is being appreciated by the telecommunications companies who are reimbursed by the federal government just as much, if not more, than the poor households receiving the benefit, considering the program a form of “corporate welfare.” A January report by The Wall Street Journal found that, of the nearly $13 billion spent by the federal government on the ACP over three years, around $3 billion was given to the internet service provider Charter Communications. The inspector general for the FCC has also raised concerns that providers were not following ACP rules, warning in a September report that dozens of providers had claimed reimbursement for subscribers suspected of nonusage.

But Gigi Sohn, the spokesperson for the Affordable Broadband Campaign, argued that the program was “mutually beneficial” to providers and those who need to be connected to the internet. “I don’t think it benefits one party more than the other,” said Sohn. “Is it corporate welfare, in a way? Yes. But for me, it’s corporate welfare that has a great public benefit.”

Although the future of the ACP is uncertain, broadband access remains a potent issue for lawmakers. This week, the Senate Commerce Committee is also expected to consider spectrum legislation from committee Chair Maria Cantwell that would include funds for the ACP.

The ACP grew from a pandemic-era benefit, and advocates argue that life has simply changed too much to end the program. Reliance on the internet has increased ever more with working from home and the rise of popularity of telehealth in particular. A recent report by the Chamber of Progress estimated that, if the ACP were permitted to expire, subscribers would lose around $1.4 billion in savings due to loss of telehealth services and more than $10 billion in potential lost wages.

“There are certain things post-Covid where we’re not rolling back the clock,” said Heitmann. “There are much higher bandwidth needs now than there were just before Covid.”