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Internet discount program misses crucial funding vehicle

Mar 21, 2024
Illustration of an internet symbol made from a velvet barrier rope.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

The government funding package unveiled Thursday doesn't include an internet subsidy that more than 23 million Americans rely on.

Why it matters: The appropriations package was one of the last viable ways to fund the Affordable Connectivity Program before it dries up at the end of April.

Threat level: Low-income households are poised to lose the $30 monthly discount, and many of those families would lose internet access altogether.

  • An FCC survey found that nearly half of the households enrolled in ACP reported having either no internet service or relying just on mobile internet service before getting the benefit.

What we're watching: Now that the appropriations process is no longer an option to fund ACP through the year, lawmakers could try to pass a standalone bill.

  • But that would be significantly more difficult in a dysfunctional Congress that has a lot to do in very little time.

What they're saying: A bipartisan group of 158 lawmakers led by Rep. Yvette Clarke had called on House and Senate leaders to fund the program through the rest of the year while lawmakers negotiate a long-term solution.

  • A short lapse will have "devastating consequences," including a loss in trust in the program and a re-enrollment process that may be too expensive for internet service providers, the lawmakers wrote Wednesday.
  • "I get the sense that a lot of folks are playing politics right now instead of thinking about what their constituents want from them. That is not only immoral, it's nonstrategic," said Carrie Joy Grimes, CEO of WorkMoney, a nonprofit that enrolled 130,000 people into the ACP.

What's next: Lawmakers are trying to find long-term funding solutions for the program.

  • One idea floating around Congress is including language in legislation to reauthorize the FCC's spectrum auction authority that says auction funds can pay for the ACP program.
  • Another is reforming the FCC's Universal Service Fund to make it a permanent funding mechanism for ACP.
  • But Senate Commerce Committee Ranking Member Ted Cruz wants to tie some or all of the FCC's USF programs to the annual appropriations process and doesn't support using spectrum money for ACP.
  • Affordable Broadband Campaign spokesperson Gigi Sohn: "It's clear that the congressional appropriations process is ill-suited to fund critical priorities like universal broadband access. We're in a moment of crisis and need a better solution."
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