the Angels — President Joe Biden recently traveled to North Carolina to promote his goal of achieving affordable internet access for all Americans, but the promise for 23 million families across the United States is on shaky ground.
That’s because a subsidy that helps people with limited resources afford Internet access is set to expire this spring.
The Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), which provides $30 a month to qualifying families in most places and $75 on tribal lands, will run out of money by the end of April if Congress does not extend it further.
“I think this should be a high priority for Congress,” North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat who has worked with a bipartisan group of governors to promote the program, said in a telephone interview. “For many families, $30 a month is a big amount.”
This is very important to Shirleen Alexander of Charlotte, who said the money she saves through ACP goes toward her grocery bills. It also offsets some of the stress she feels from medical bills.
“If they took (ACP) away from me, it would be like taking food out of my mouth,” said Alexander, an elderly man on a fixed income. “I need the service and some of my older friends need it too.”
The program is key to the Biden administration’s plans to make the Internet available to everyone, something the president has repeatedly touted as he ramps up his re-election campaign. He has compared it to the Rural Electrification Administration, the New Deal program that delivered electricity to much of rural America in the 1930s.
“Our goal is to connect everyone in America to reliable, affordable high-speed Internet by 2030, just as Franklin Roosevelt did a generation ago with electricity,” President Biden said in Raleigh on last month.
So far, only 43% of eligible households nationwide have registered to receive the ACP subsidy. But the program has allowed people who have signed up to avoid the types of financial compensation that Alexander described, said Brian Vo, chief investment officer at Connect Humanity, a nonprofit that promotes widespread Internet access. It also gives them access to vital services like telehealth, education and remote work, he said.
“If you put ACP and affordability in the context of the social determinants it drives and the economic value created, the benefits far outweigh the cost of $30 per household,” Vo said.
If the program expires, participating families, including nearly 900,000 in North Carolina, will lose internet access or have to pay more to stay connected.
North Carolina is among the best states in the country when it comes to taking advantage of the ACP, according to an AP analysis of the program. More than 50% of eligible households in the state are enrolled in the program.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers recently proposed a bill to sustain the ACP through the end of 2024 with an additional $7 billion in funding, $1 billion more than Biden asked Congress to allocate for the program late last year. However, no votes have been scheduled to advance the bill and it is unclear whether the program will take priority in a divided Congress.
Meanwhile, the Federal Communications Commission has already taken steps to end the program. It has ordered Internet providers to send notices about the projected end of the program and announced that it will stop accepting new enrollees after February 7.
Nate Denny, North Carolina’s deputy broadband director, said he is “extremely concerned” about the end of the subsidy program, especially since the state will receive a total of $1.5 billion from the federal government. Most of that money will be given to Internet providers to build Internet infrastructure in the areas that need it most.
“The ACP has a tremendous effect on adoption, but it also has a tremendous impact on the state’s ability to stretch available infrastructure funds,” Denny said.
The ACP reduces the amount of subsidy money an Internet provider needs to integrate into low-income communities because it provides the guarantee of a stable customer base, according to state broadband leaders the AP and spoke with. an analysis from the nonprofit organization Common Sense Media and the consulting firm Boston Consulting Group.
“With the help of the ACP, Internet providers are seeing more willing subscribers, more beneficiaries of their investments which then helps them stretch their capital even further and therefore stretch state investments as well,” Denny said.
The money for infrastructure comes from a $42.5 billion fund allocated to the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program, the cornerstone of the Biden administration’s efforts to close the digital divide for good.
In December, states submitted draft plans detailing the lowest-cost plans that providers building networks using BEAD money will be required to offer to qualifying families. Several states incorporated ACP subsidies into those draft plans in ways that would reduce the cost of Internet access to zero for some customers.
Although those lower-cost plans would not work as designed without support from the federal subsidy program, a spokesperson for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration said BEAD “will continue to connect everyone in America and ensure newly connected households have access to affordable plans. “
Several Biden administration officials, including Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, have highlighted the need for more funding for the program during their trips around the country in recent months.
The state of North Carolina will do everything it can to keep Internet affordable no matter what, the governor said, but he hopes Congress will maintain subsidies for those who need them.
“We want to try to keep this program alive and I still think the opportunity to do that is still there,” Cooper said.
Harjai is a corps member for The Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.