Millions to lose affordable internet unless Congress extends subsides

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Millions of households will lose discounts on their internet bills in the coming months if Congress does not act to extend an affordable-internet program.

The Federal Communications Commission says it will begin winding down the Affordable Connectivity Program this week if it cannot secure more funding from Congress.

Launched at the end of 2021, the ACP allowed some 23 million low-income households to receive discounts on their internet bills of up to $30 a month — or up to $75 a month on qualifying tribal lands.

The FCC said the $14.2 billion that Congress appropriated for the program will run out in April. The program — which the FCC calls the country’s largest internet affordability program ever — will be shut down unless funding is renewed.

FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel sent letters dated Monday to congressional leaders seeking $6 billion to continue the program through the end of 2024.

“Absent additional funding, we could lose the significant progress this program has made toward closing the digital divide,” Rosenworcel wrote. “Yet we have come too far with the ACP to turn back.”

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), chair of the Senate Commerce Committee and a recipient of one of the letters, said in a statement that 330,000 people in Washington state rely on the ACP for their internet access and that she would “support any Presidential request to provide additional funding for this program.”

The ACP originated as a short-term pandemic measure to ease economic pain by providing low-income households with up to $50 in monthly discounts on their internet bills. As workplaces switched to Zoom meetings, and as schools began remote classes, having reliable internet access became increasingly crucial and the program aimed to help close the digital divide.

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The Biden administration has made universal access to high-speed internet by 2030 one of its policy priorities, with a range of measures aimed at ensuring that households in remote areas can have affordable service and that users are not discriminated against by income level, race or other factors. Biden has likened it to the government’s effort in the 1930s to bring electricity to the entire nation, calling internet access a necessity for modern work and life.

The program, dubbed the Emergency Broadband Benefit, was popular with users but not without controversy: A Washington Post investigation found that internet service providers unleashed price increases, service cuts and sometimes fraud as they scrambled for EBB subsidies.

When the EBB ended in 2021, it was replaced by the ACP, which offered similar but smaller discounts to eligible households. The FCC said rural households had a higher enrollment rate under the ACP, though both urban and rural users are eligible.

A household is eligible for the ACP if it’s at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty guidelines — about $60,000 for a family of four — or if it meets other criteria, such as a member participating in certain government assistance programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Medicaid, federal housing assistance or the National School Lunch Program.

Separate from the ACP, the Biden administration in June announced more than $42 billion in new federal funding to expand high-speed internet access nationwide. About 7 percent of the country still does not have broadband internet service that meets the government’s minimum standards, according to federal estimates.

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