U.S. cities scramble as internet access benefit runs out

Students work on school-issued computers with unreliable internet connectivity during the global outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Los Angeles, California, U.S., August 18, 2020. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Students work on school-issued computers with unreliable internet connectivity during the global outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Los Angeles, California, U.S., August 18, 2020. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

What’s the context?

The Affordable Connectivity Program, which provided free or discounted broadband to low-income households, could end this month

  • Affordable Connectivity Program used by 23 million
  • Offers $30-a-month subsidies on internet access
  • Programme end taking many by surprise

WASHINGTON – Nate Stone is dreading the next few weeks, when the digital inclusion work he has helped spearhead in Denver comes under sudden, serious threat.

Barring a last-minute save, this month a widely heralded federal programme to subsidise internet access for low-income and other households runs out of money – affecting more than 23 million people.

The $14.2-billion Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) began at the end of 2021 in response to the pandemic, but has become a key part of the U.S. social safety net. Yet despite broad bipartisan support, the ACP is likely to lapse amidst political logjam over a host of other issues.

"The impact here is going to be just monstrously devastating," Stone, the Denver Public Library system's technology education administrator, told Context.

"The folks who are in the most precarious positions will lose their ability to connect with those networks that can actually provide them support."

Around 14% of Denver residents previously lacked an internet connection, he said.

Stone was planning to head to a housing development for elderly people that had used the ACP's $30-a-month subsidy to get internet connections for the first time.

Now, he said, "they all got notices that the ACP is going away, and no one has any idea what their options are."

The Universal Service Administrative Co., which administers the ACP, referred questions on guidance for local officials to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which did not respond to queries.

There are several attempts in Congress to extend the ACP temporarily, alongside longer-term strategies on making funding for such an internet subsidy permanent.

But it could be too late. 

"Lack of funding could end this critical program, raising costs for hardworking families," said U.S. Senator Jacky Rosen of Nevada said in a statement.

Rosen helped create the ACP and is now leading efforts to get it extended and figure out permanent funding.

"Access to high-speed internet is a critical lifeline for families to access telemedicine, complete schoolwork, and even run a business," she said.

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'At a loss'

When the pandemic hit, local officials found themselves on the front lines in responding to academic, health and other challenges suddenly facing residents, said Angelina Panettieri of the National League of Cities, an umbrella group.

Schools and libraries undertook major operations to deliver technology and technical know-how, tapping their deep knowledge on where to find those most in need, said the legislative director for information technology and communications.

That work continued even as the health emergency abated, with many cities starting to invest broadly in digital equity, Panettieri said.

Now they are scrambling to figure out how to maintain that work.

"A lot of cities are at a loss as to what they can do," she said.

Many are starting by reaching out to residents to keep them apprised of the changes looming and help them figure out their options for a service that has become increasingly central.

"It's really just to be able to complete day-to-day activities – applying for jobs, meeting with healthcare providers, going to school," said Rebecca F. Kauma, director of digital equity for Los Angeles County's Internal Services Department, the first person in that position.

She said 2.9 million households across California were enrolled in the ACP as of February, about a third of which are Los Angeles County residents – and it is unclear how they would respond.

Although internet service providers had low-cost offers available ranging from $20 to $30 a month, "the reality is that many Los Angeles County residents cannot afford that," Kauma said.

"We've seen from data from the FCC that many communities would drop their internet service if the ACP were to sunset."

The ending also complicates future efforts already underway, including the government's $42 billion plan to bring broadband service to every U.S. home – with many states having planned implementation around the ACP.

Albemarle County in Virginia has created its own broadband subsidy, aiming to achieve universal internet coverage across the large, mostly rural jurisdiction by the end of next year.

"The lesson, however, is federal monies go away," said Jason Inofuentes, programme manager with the county's Broadband Accessibility and Affordability Office.

He said some 2,700 households across the county were enrolled in the ACP, and the county had created a "bridge" programme, in partnership with a major local service provider, to help as many of those residents as possible as officials look at their options.

The likely expiration comes at a key time nationally, he said, pointing to the massive growth in attention given to digital inclusion offering new opportunity to find national solutions to addressing barriers to access.

But in terms of the impact of the ACP's end, "our worry now is a lot of these households, when they lose their programming, they'll feel burned. And we'll be the face of that," Inofuentes said.

Private sector

The ACP's end would put significantly more emphasis on private sector programmes.

National internet service providers Comcast and AT&T told Context they were urging the federal government to extend the ACP or similar initiatives, and in the meantime were continuing to offer low-cost options.

Another provider, Windstream, is going a step further to cover the subsidy for now.

"We intend to continue for the time being a $30 monthly credit to our current ACP customers after the federal government cuts off funding for the programme," Windstream senior adviser for corporate affairs Scott Morris said in an email.

The National Digital Inclusion Alliance, which has 1,600 members and has been a key voice on the issue, is tracking these low-cost plans.

"We'll be looking at ease of signing up, how much they are able to transition their current ACP customers into the low-cost plan," said Angela Siefer, the alliance's executive director.

"We're super worried about people not getting the memo that this is ending, and then three months pass and they get kicked off because they now have three months of debt – that's 100% going to happen."

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