U.S. Congress

What’s next for the 23 million households no longer receiving monthly federal internet subsidy

The Affordable Connectivity Program has officially run out of money, but more than a dozen internet providers have pledged to offer plans at $30 or less through 2024 for low-income households.

Yuichiro Chino via Getty Images

By Elizabeth Daigneau, with additional reporting by Harrison Cann

The Affordable Connectivity Program officially ended last Friday after funding for the federal internet subsidy ran out at the end of May. Now, internet bills are about to go up for the more than 23 million households who received the $30-a-month discount.

Federal Communications Commission Chair Jessica Rosenworcel warned on May 30 of increased bills in a letter to Congress notifying lawmakers of the program’s end. She acknowledged the impact on seniors, veterans, school-aged children and Native American tribal households.

“It is regrettable that the FCC must bring to a close the most successful broadband affordability program in our nation’s history,” she wrote. “The end of the program means increased bills and increased disconnection. In fact, 77% of ACP households in a commission survey stated that losing the benefit would disrupt their service by making them change their plans or lead to them dropping internet service entirely.”

In addition to the more than 17 million households reporting they could see disruptions to their internet access should the program end, the December survey also found that more than two-thirds of respondents had inconsistent or zero connectivity prior to enrolling in the program. Of that group, 80% cited affordability as the reason.

But it might not be all doom and gloom for the 23 million participating households. On May 31, the official last day of the pandemic-era ACP, the Biden administration spotlighted commitments from over a dozen internet service providers to offer plans at $30 or less to low-income households through 2024. The White House said that the commitments include “small, rural carriers that serve a single region and larger providers that cover multiple states.”

The administration noted that these promises weren’t a replacement for federal legislation. “President Biden is once again calling on Congress to extend funding for the Affordable Connectivity Program,” according to the brief, “so tens of millions of Americans can continue to access this essential benefit.”

A $7 billion bipartisan, bicameral bill to extend the ACP to the end of this year is stalled in Congress, as is separate legislation that would fund the program differently. That legislation, introduced by Democratic U.S. Sen. John Fetterman, would make the ACP permanent by removing it from the regular appropriations process and instead incorporating it into the Universal Service Fund, which is a federal subsidy pool supported by monthly contributions from telecommunications companies that are passed on to consumers.

Fetterman told City & State in an email statement: “Politics should not stand in the way of funding this lifeline for hundreds of thousands of American families.”

“This should be simple: When a program works, we should keep it. I ran for the Senate to protect programs like ACP that improve the lives of Pennsylvanians. Broadband internet is no longer a luxury; it’s a necessity, but too many families still don’t have access,” Fetterman said.

U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, a Republican representative from the state’s 1st Congressional District, was one of several GOP lawmakers who supported the program. Despite the bipartisan support, Republican critics of the program held up a vote on an extension, arguing that ACP had an inflationary effect on internet prices.

Fitzpatrick, who noted that 763,000 of ACP’s recipients resided in Pennsylvania, told City & State in a statement that in allowing the program to expire, Congress is “leaving behind millions of veterans, as well as mental health patients, senior citizens, and low and fixed-income families in my community and across the country.” 

“Despite where things stand, I remain steadfast in my mission to advocate and push for a solution and will continue encouraging my colleagues to join me in this vitally important initiative,” Fitzpatrick said.  

U.S. Sen. Peter Welch of Vermont, a Democrat and supporter of the subsidy, vowed not to give up the fight. 

“Broadband access is one of the few things we can still find bipartisan agreement on in Washington – yet the Affordable Connectivity Program could very well be the next victim of Congressional dysfunction,” Welch, a co-sponsor of the $7 billion bill, said in a statement. “The economic and social consequences of not meeting this moment will be severe for the most vulnerable in our communities – and they’ll be even more painful for those who live in rural areas that are already disconnected. You cannot participate in today’s economy without the internet. You cannot access education or health care.”

Cities and counties have been pushing hard for Congress to fund the program. Members of the National League of Cities advocated for the ACP when they were in Washington, D.C., in February. County officials met with lawmakers a week after the NLC delegation.

In addition, 174 mayors wrote to Congress in January urging the body to fully fund the program, saying, “The Affordable Connectivity Program has been a key tool in our efforts to eliminate the digital divide.”

“Despite more than 12 months of dedication from a bipartisan and bicameral cohort of lawmakers and more than 400 organizations representing a range of public, private and community interests, efforts in Congress to extend the Affordable Connectivity Program have fallen short,” said Kathryn de Wit, broadband access initiative project director at The Pew Charitable Trusts, in a statement. De Wit had testified in support of the program last month before a Senate subcommittee hearing.

Rosenworcel noted in her letter to lawmakers that the program is in high demand. According to FCC data examined by Route Fifty, an average of 586,738 households a month and about 11,720 households per state had been signing up for the program over the past year. Rosenworcel said that her agency is prepared to restart the program as soon as it is funded.

“Millions of ACP households nationwide, and households that may be eligible but have not yet enrolled, are looking to Congress to provide the funding needed to keep the ACP up and running,” she wrote. “The Commission is available to provide any assistance Congress may need to support funding the ACP in the future and stands ready to resume the program if additional funding is provided."

Elizabeth Daigneau is an executive editor for Route Fifty, where this story first appeared.