A federal program that provides $30 monthly broadband discounts to people with low incomes is expected to run out of money in April 2023, potentially taking affordable Internet service plans away from well over 20 million households.
For months, supporters of the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) have been pushing Congress to give the Federal Communications Commission more funding for the program. FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel urged lawmakers to act yesterday during a House Communications and Technology Subcommittee hearing.
In an opening statement, Rosenworcel said the ACP is providing discounts for over 22 million households. The FCC expects that number to reach 25 million by April, when the program would run out of money.
“We have come so far, we can’t go back,” Rosenworcel said (see video). “We need Congress to continue to fund this program. If Congress does not, in April of next year, we’ll have to unplug households and, based on current projections, it’ll be about 25 million households we will unplug from the Internet in April.”
The 22 million-household milestone was reached on or before November 27, according to program data.
Biden admin seeks $6B for 2024
The hearing held by the Republican-majority subcommittee was titled, “Oversight of President Biden’s Broadband Takeover.” That’s a reference to the FCC’s plan to implement a law prohibiting discrimination in access to broadband services, which is being fought by Internet service providers and Republicans.
But the hearing covered several other FCC-related topics, including the ACP. Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.) brought up the topic, saying she intends to introduce legislation before the end of the year to re-fund the program. “With funding expected to run out early next year, I plan to fight hard to make sure Congress provides the commission with the Administration’s full funding request for the ACP,” Clarke said.
The Biden administration requested $6 billion to fund the program through December 2024. The ACP is especially critical for rural, remote, and tribal communities, the White House said in October. “Without this funding, tens of millions of people would lose this benefit and would no longer be able to afford high-speed Internet service without sacrificing other necessities,” the White House said.
The ACP, which replaced a similar pandemic-related subsidy program, started with $14.2 billion allocated by Congress in late 2021. While the standard discount is $30 a month, it provides $75 monthly subsidies on tribal lands and in “high-cost” areas where the cost of building broadband networks is higher than average.
Clarke asked Rosenworcel to describe what will happen if the FCC has to end the program.
“If we do that, early in the year we’ll have to let the providers know that they’re going to have to give notice to every one of those households, every one of those consumers who counts on this program,” Rosenworcel said. “We will also have to indicate to the providers that they can no longer enroll new households and we’ll have to work with our outreach coordinators to bring their efforts to an end.”
Rosenworcel touted the ACP as “the largest broadband affordability effort in United States history. I’ve talked about it with international regulators, before the UN broadband commission. It is now a model for the world.”
Governors call on Congress to act
The governors of 25 US states and Puerto Rico urged Congress to extend the ACP in a November 13 letter. Four Republican governors were part of the primarily Democratic group signing that letter. The governors’ letter pointed out that the US is spending $42.5 billion to deploy new broadband connections and said the low-income discounts help incentivize ISPs to build in rural areas.
“With $42.5 billion in Broadband, Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) funding going to the states, we want to maximize this once-in-a-generation opportunity,” the governors wrote. “The ACP plays a valuable role in helping households afford broadband and encouraging internet providers to build out rural broadband infrastructure… Closing our nation’s digital divide transcends politics.”
The program has support from the telecom industry and consumer advocates, yet its fate in Congress seems to be unclear.
“Congress is on the verge of letting the program run out of money if swift action is not taken to extend ACP funding,” Gigi Sohn, a longtime consumer advocate and executive director of the American Association for Public Broadband, said this week.
Sohn called on Congress to approve the requested $6 billion for 2024 and work out a longer-term plan to fund the program indefinitely. “I urge Congress to meet the moment and invest at least $6 billion to keep this program funded through 2024, giving policymakers time to find ACP funding a permanent home,” Sohn’s statement said.