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Congress debates dwindling internet discount program

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May 2, 2024
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Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

Lawmakers are racing against the clock to renew an internet discount program that more than 23 million Americans have come to rely on.

Why it matters: Efforts to keep the Affordable Connectivity Program alive are faltering, and low-income households are poised to lose the $30 monthly discount at the end of this month.

State of play: Senate Commerce Committee Chair Maria Cantwell this week pulled her bill, the Spectrum and National Security Act, from a scheduled markup.

  • Cantwell's legislation would use spectrum auction money to fund the ACP.
  • A separate bipartisan, bicameral bill from Sens. Peter Welch and J.D. Vance, the Affordable Connectivity Program Extension Act, would also fund the program.

By the numbers: A new study from the Chamber of Progress found ACP beneficiaries are at risk of losing $10 billion in work opportunities, $1.4 billion in telehealth savings and $627 million in student benefits.

Pressure is ramping up on lawmakers to act. Tuesday was the last day households could receive the full $30 or $75.

  • White House officials, lawmakers, FCC commissioners and advocacy groups held a rally that day to highlight the impact of the program on Americans across the country.
  • The White House is blaming Republicans for inaction, and Democrats — in a nod to constituents in red states — have been stressing that veterans and people in rural communities could face high speed internet loss.

What they're saying: "It would be a significant waste of government funds to let this program lapse," Senate Commerce broadband subcommittee Chair Ben Ray Luján said during a hearing Thursday.

  • "It would mean letting all of the time and resources the federal government and our state and local partners have put into standing up the program and enrolling 23 million households go to waste."
  • FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel said in a final letter to Congress that "if additional funding is not promptly appropriated, the one in six households nationwide that rely on this program will face rising bills and increasing disconnection."

For a long-term fix, Sen. John Fetterman introduced a bill this week to fund the ACP by incorporating it into the Universal Service Fund and making big tech companies like Google and Meta pay into that fund — an approach lauded by the telecom industry.

Yes, but: ACP backers say a short-term solution is needed while USF reform is hashed out.

The other side: Senate Commerce Ranking Member Ted Cruz said at a hearing Thursday that the ACP has been inefficient and shouldn't be funded through spectrum proceeds, as Cantwell has proposed.

  • Cruz believes USF should go through the congressional appropriations process for funds instead of its current contribution mechanism.

What's next: Lawmakers this week are debating an FAA reauthorization package that could provide a vehicle for getting ACP renewal through Congress, but Republican opposition may block that path.

  • Cantwell told Axios on Thursday that she doesn't plan to file an amendment for her spectrum bill and is aiming to mark it up before the end of the month.
  • House Republicans are pushing Speaker Mike Johnson to replenish the program.
  • But Cantwell said the Republican and Democratic leaders of both chambers don't want unrelated legislation riding on the FAA bill.
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