Congress is about to let a popular government-backed affordable internet program lapse and lawmakers can’t agree on what to do next.
Households enrolled in the Affordable Connectivity Program began receiving notices this week from their providers about the impending impact on their internet bills. The $14 billion program — included in the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in 2021 — is helping 23 million households, according to the FCC.
The FCC will stop accepting new applications after Feb. 7 in anticipation of the program running out of money by April. Without congressional action, one in six households could lose broadband access, FCC spokesperson Paloma Perez said.
That’s left lawmakers representing rural populations and low-income communities franticly urging congressional leaders to save the program, to little avail.
“Families rely on this program to have telehealth appointments. Kids need it for their education,” Rep. Josh Harder (D-Calif.) told us. “We had kids sitting in Taco Bell parking lots during the pandemic doing schoolwork because they didn’t have internet at home. In 2024, that sort of thing should not be happening.”
The White House has requested a supplemental $6 billion for the ACP to continue while also pushing Congress to fund the program through the annual appropriations process.
The FCC has also dialed up pressure on Congress to act. But the agency has to contend with key GOP lawmakers, including House Energy and Commerce Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) and Senate Minority Whip John Thune, who question the ACP’s effectiveness.
We’re following the issue as part of our platform, The Punch Up, which examines the equity divide in the U.S. and efforts to close it.
GOP skepticism: There’s bipartisan support for the ACP, but many Republicans argue the program is wasteful and subsidized households that already have internet access.
“We want to make sure what we do is correct,” Rep. Bob Latta (R-Ohio) said. “When money is going out the door to people who already have broadband, those are things we want to look at.”
Latta, who is the chair of House Energy and Commerce’s Communications and Technology Subcommittee, is part of a working group mulling ways to streamline the way the government funds low-income connectivity programs.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), another member of the working group, said the ACP should be tailored more to people who don’t already have internet access.
“I do think we need to narrow the focus, so that those who really need it the most are the ones getting it, and I think a lot of people agree with that,” Capito said.
There’s one other issue worth noting with the ACP – one company has swept up nearly a quarter of the subsidies under the program. Charter Communications has gotten $3 billion from the program. No other company has received more than $1 billion. This has attracted the attention of federal regulators, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Concern for rural communities: Meanwhile, some Democrats are urging congressional leaders to fund the program throughout December 2024.
“Republicans have more rural communities in their districts than Democrats,” Rep. Angie Craig (D-Minn.) said. “I can’t understand for the life of me why this isn’t a higher priority from a budgetary perspective.”
The New Democrat Coalition wrote a letter to leadership in October to consider including ACP “in any government funding package.”
Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y) and Sen. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) have also introduced bipartisan bills to boost the program with $7 billion. But it’s unlikely the ACP will get new funding while House conservatives seek to drastically cut federal spending.
Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.), another member of the working group, said it will take a while to find alternatives to government-funded programs. She doesn’t want the ACP to be reliant on unpredictable appropriations.
“If everybody is in favor of broadband, we have to get real about this,” she said.
Don’t miss: Every last Friday of the month, The Punch Up will bring you coverage of a key equity issue playing out. For the first three months of this year, we’re focussing on digital equity.
— Mica Soellner and Elvina Nawaguna