Internet subsidy program in jeopardy
Companies and community organizers that helped 22 million Americans sign up for discounted internet are in limbo because the program's funding is up in the air.
Why it matters: If Congress doesn't renew the Affordable Connectivity Program, notices of termination will go out to customers, and organizers worry fewer people would sign up again if the program were ever reinstated.
- The $30 monthly subsidy has made internet service free for many families with tight budgets.
- The funding uncertainty undermines the trust that organizers say they worked hard to build in communities that tend to be skeptical of the government.
- "People will feel scammed and, some, hopeless. It's really quite senseless to introduce something needed, prove it works, and then snatch it away while the problem it's attempting to solve is still rampant," said Gina Birch, Greater Cleveland Digital Navigators lead.
State of play: ACP funds are expected to run out around April.
- Internet providers are waiting for the FCC to give them guidance on when and how to start notifying customers that the subsidy will be taken away.
- Companies say 90 days is an appropriate amount of notice, but ultimately the FCC is required to decide the wind-down procedure.
- Some providers are pulling back on actively recruiting for ACP, and others never participated because of the short-term nature of the program, according to Competitive Carriers Association president Tim Donovan.
- AT&T and Spectrum are asking customers to pressure their members of Congress to renew the program.
Companies and advocates alike say including ACP funding in a supplemental spending package — as the White House called for in October — is the best option.
- If lawmakers wait to tack it onto an omnibus spending package in February, that would cause a scramble because by then customers may have already gotten notices their discount was going to be taken away.
Of note: There's broad, bipartisan support to renew the program by at least $6 billion, but the challenge among lawmakers is how to offset the cost, particularly in the House where there is no appetite to spend more money.
- This month INCOMPAS, Public Knowledge, the United Church of Christ Media Justice, Google Fiber and other groups met with lawmakers to advocate for the program.
- Center for Digital Equity project manager Bruce Clark, who attended some of the meetings, said he didn't leave feeling hopeful: "Even something like this that is seen as successful, generally speaking, is likely a long shot."
- One offset advocates floated that got nods from lawmakers was using spectrum funds, according to Clark. But for that, Congress would need to reauthorize the FCC's authority to hold auctions.
Threat level: More than 800,000 veteran households benefit from the ACP, according to Universal Service Fund data.
- 3.1 million families with a K-12 student receiving free or reduced-price lunches rely on the program.
- 1 million low-income college students use the program.
- 9.3 million subscribers are 50 or older.
What they're saying: "We have come so far. We can't go back," FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel said during a House hearing on Thursday, adding the commission projects that 25 million households will be "unplugged."
What's next: Rep. Yvette Clarke said during the FCC oversight hearing that she will introduce ACP renewal legislation before the end of the year.
- Sen. Ben Ray Luján, who is working on a Universal Service Fund revamp, which could ensure long-term ACP funding, told Axios the appropriations process seems like "the path of least resistance right now" and is optimistic the program will be funded in a bipartisan way.