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The dome of the US Capitol

Organizations struggle to narrow the digital gap as Congress drags its feet

Congress is facing yet another government-shutdown threat next week. Meanwhile, key advocates are scrambling to ensure marginalized communities don’t fall through the digital cracks.

But so far, the effort doesn’t appear to be working despite top Democrats and administration officials raising alarm bells about the expiring Affordable Connectivity Program, which is used by 23 million U.S. households.

“Internet connection is not a luxury; it is a necessity,” Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), ranking member on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, told us. “Everybody needs the internet to find a job, to get an education, even to shop… for health care purposes, the list is endless.”

As of now, several sources told us it’s unlikely the popular program will receive an influx of new funds in the upcoming spending deal to keep it going beyond April. The FCC stopped accepting applications earlier this month in preparation.

The nonprofit push: Earlier this month, more than 100 organizations wrote to House leaders and top appropriators urging them to “prioritize” passing legislation to extend ACP. But the effort to close the digital divide goes far beyond the pandemic-era program.

“The digital divide is not new; it’s been here for years,” EducationSuperHighway Vice President Adeyinka Ogunlegan said. “The pandemic shone a light on it.”

To underscore that, Pallone and several local and nonprofit leaders — including from the local NAACP and UnidosUS — evoked pandemic images of children doing school work in parking lots during a Wednesday event in Redbank, N.J.

“The question around internet access and having reliable quality, fast internet access is one of the great civil rights challenges of our time,” said Rafael Collazo, executive director of UnidosUS, which advocates on Latino issues.

Pallone is pushing for an extension of the ACP through spending bills but said he will try any legislative means available. Advocates are banking on a bill that would extend funding for the program through 2024.

But the program has GOP skeptics, including Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), ranking member on the Senate Commerce Committee. Cruz and other top Republicans have questioned the program’s effectiveness and argue it’s had an inflationary impact on broadband prices.

“In light of ACP’s poor record, it would be irresponsible to spend billions more on this program without a total overhaul,” Cruz said in a statement.

We’re following this issue as part of our equity platform, The Punch Up.

— Robert O’Shaughnessy

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