Extending Affordable Internet Can Be a Much-Needed Bipartisan Victory

Congress is veering toward a potential government shutdown as early as next month, with no sign that the ongoing partisan divide over the budget will end anytime soon. So now, without delay, we need to identify opportunities for collaboration that result in tangible benefits for the public. One such opportunity is a critical program that enjoys bipartisan support in Congress and among voters and offers lawmakers the chance to work across the aisle for the benefit of all Americans: the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP). 

ACP, which was created by the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law, has helped more than 20 million American households sign up for and sustain at-home internet plans by providing them with a monthly subsidy. The subsidy doesn’t mean the internet service is free: Households still pay a median price of $40 per month after receiving the ACP benefit. Thus while the subsidy helps families pay for service, the program also ensures steady revenue for internet service providers. The result is a larger customer base for providers, which generates powerful incentives for them to enter markets that they might otherwise have deemed too risky—a favorable outcome for unserved families in those markets, even households that don’t need the ACP benefit to pay for access.

Unfortunately, ACP’s funding is projected to run out by the spring of 2024. This means that the promises of broadband access made in the bipartisan infrastructure law and other federal broadband programs will be broken, undoing years of progress and undermining billions of dollars in taxpayer investments. Here’s why:

First, research tells us that even when high-speed internet service is available, it may be too expensive for some families. Income is the greatest indicator of whether a household has internet. Another review found that 62% of households making $50,000 or less annually would need “significant cost relief” from market prices to keep their internet plans.

Letting ACP’s funding dry up would abruptly cut millions of low-income families off from the connectivity they now rely on to work, go to school, see their doctor, and much more. Additionally, as much as 45% of ACP enrollees are 50 and older, making the program critical for older Americans and those on a fixed income. If the program ceased to exist, at least 20 million Americans would immediately feel the impact on their pocketbooks.

Second, ACP benefits the larger broadband market by creating stability and decreasing customer turnover for internet service providers, a costly process that can threaten private investment in unserved communities.

Lastly, securing ACP’s long-term future is an essential piece of America’s broadband puzzle. In 2021, when Congress established the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program and the American Rescue Plan Act’s $10.5 billion Capital Projects Fund, it made participation in ACP a condition for internet service providers seeking grants to build network infrastructure. Why? Because Congress had learned from other broadband programs that offsetting the cost of deployment for service providers means little if people can’t afford to connect to the network when it’s there. If Congress fails to fund ACP beyond the spring of next year, the viability of these hallmark programs—and the economic, health, and educational benefits they provide to millions of Americans—could vanish.

According to a survey by the bipartisan non-governmental Digital Progress Institute, 79% of Americans support continued funding for ACP. Yet although the program has earned praise from many lawmakers in Washington and the states, there has been little movement on Capitol Hill toward ensuring the program’s survival. Saving ACP is an opportunity for Congress to set aside partisan differences and secure the future of a program that countless Americans rely on every day and most of us take for granted: access to high-speed internet.

Kathryn de Wit is a project director with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ broadband access initiative.

This piece was originally published by The Hill on Sept. 20, 2023.

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