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Funding at risk for program that helps millions afford internet

Supporters are worried political will is lacking while Congress is locked in a spending fight

Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., is one of the lawmakers pushing to get the Affordable Connectivity Program funded.
Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., is one of the lawmakers pushing to get the Affordable Connectivity Program funded. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

More than 20 million low-income households are at risk of being priced out of internet access unless Congress can reach agreement on funding for a program that provides internet service discounts. 

Supporters of the Affordable Connectivity Program are pressing for passage of bipartisan, bicameral legislation to keep it afloat past April, when funding is expected to run out. That outcome may depend on Congress’ ability to pass appropriations measures to prevent a government shutdown, and some supporters are worried that it’s not a priority for Republican leadership.

“We’ll attach it to anything,” Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., said of the legislation at a news conference last week. “We just are going to try to do whatever we can because we don’t want this program to expire. Because if it does it’s going to be very detrimental to all these people that need internet access.”

Pallone is the top Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over telecommunications.

About 23 million households are enrolled in the Federal Communications Commission program, providing them with discounts for internet service of up to $30 per month and up to $75 per month on qualifying tribal lands. The FCC stopped accepting new applications in February and warned users that it’s winding down the program unless funding comes through.

Pallone and others are looking to provide appropriations for the remainder of the current fiscal year by attaching it to any of the 12 annual spending bills. Congressional leaders have yet to reach agreement as temporary funding for agencies under four of them lapses on Friday, and the rest expire on March 8.

A spokesperson for Sen. Peter Welch, D-Vt., who introduced the Senate version, said Welch is pushing to include his legislation in any of the funding vehicles. His bill is backed by Sens. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio, Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., and Jacky Rosen, D-Nev. 

Rep. Yvette D. Clarke, D-N.Y., sponsored the House version, which has 29 bipartisan co-sponsors. 

Their bills would appropriate $7 billion to the ACP through the remainder of fiscal 2024, which ends Sept. 30, or longer if the funds last.

Broad support

A senior staffer for a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee said the goal is to include language in a broader appropriations package that funds the ACP for the remainder of 2024. The House staffer is “cautiously optimistic,” noting the program’s popularity. 

“I have not had a conversation with anybody who was aware of this program and involved in these kinds of issues who [opposed the ACP]. I’ve worked on Capitol Hill for years, and there’s never before been an issue where everyone seems to be on one side,” the aide said. 

The legislation is supported by telecommunications giants such as AT&T, Comcast, Verizon and T-Mobile, as well as the industry’s trade associations and several labor organizations. 

President Joe Biden in October asked Congress for $6 billion to extend the ACP as part of a supplemental funding request. A month later, half of U.S. governors, as well as Puerto Rico’s governor, urged congressional leaders to prevent a funding lapse.

Still, Pallone expressed worry that Republican leadership won’t help get the measure past the finish line.

“We do have Republican support, but we need them to push forward and include this in the appropriations bill,” he said.  

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, who appeared alongside Pallone, said that while the agency is investing in infrastructure to expand broadband access, affordability is just as important.

“We built the largest broadband affordability initiative in our nation’s history. That’s how much of a big deal the Affordable Connectivity Program is,” she said. “And the way I see it is we’ve come just way too far now to go back.”

Households with income at or below 200 percent of federal poverty guidelines, meaning roughly $60,000 annually for a family of four or $29,000 a year for an individual, are eligible.

People may also qualify if they or their children or dependents receive other government assistance, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Medicaid or federal housing assistance. 

The Affordable Connectivity Program was authorized for $14.2 billion as part of the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law, replacing an earlier broadband affordability program. It’s not the FCC’s only broadband affordability program. An agency website highlights the availability of its Lifeline program for those who can no longer apply or if the ACP expires.

Lifeline was established in 1985 and provides eligible households with a discount of as much as $9.25 per month, and up to $34.25 on tribal lands, on the cost of phone, internet or bundled services. 

Individuals can qualify for Lifeline if their income is 135 percent or less than federal poverty guidelines or if someone in the household participates in certain federal assistance programs. 

A national survey of ACP participants by a market research firm and Comcast underscores the importance of connectivity for those who work from home or who depend greatly on internet access. If the program ends, 65 percent of respondents said they fear losing their jobs, 75 percent said they could lose access to certain health care services and 81 percent worried about their children falling behind in school.

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