The Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), created in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), also known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, has provided more than 22 million low-income households with a monthly $30 discount on home broadband service from participating internet service providers.
Unfortunately, without congressional action soon, the ACP is expected to exhaust its current source of funds and forced to halt benefits at the end of April. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, whose agency is responsible for administering the ACP, has warned Congress that millions of households are at risk of discontinuation of broadband service and the accumulation of debt from unpaid bills.
As states prepare to solicit applications for $42 billion in Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) grants, hundreds of potential internet service provider applicants have developed plans dependent on participation in ACP to comply with grant requirements and improve the financial sustainability of their projects.
A bipartisan, bicameral group of legislators introduced the Affordable Connectivity Program Extension Act (H.R. 6929/S. 3565). This bill would provide the ACP with an extra $7 billion to extend the operating timeline and ensure participating households do not lose connectivity. While the bill is bipartisan, it faces some roadblocks to passage: Congressional deadlock over spending, objections by some legislators to the program and its benefit levels or qualification requirements, and the tight timeline to appropriate funds to continue the program without interruption. However, the increase in public awareness about the threat of expiration and constituent anger at the approach of the deadline may help motivate legislators to support the bill.
What Happens Next?
On January 11, the FCC adopted a Report and Order outlining the process for winding down the ACP, assuming no funding extension is made. There are several steps that the FCC and participating broadband providers must take prior to the possible sundown of the program in April. These include:
- Ensure a first notification to participating customers on January 25.
- Send a second notification 15 days after the FCC’s official notice of funds exhaustion, (expected in mid-March),
- Include a third notice with the customer’s last billing cycle to which the benefit may be applied.
The federal government will stop accepting new enrollees in the program on February 7. At this time, activity supported by federal ACP outreach grants must also cease. The FCC also plans to remove ACP marketing materials and share information about the program’s end.
The end of ACP would impact individual households, communities, broadband service providers, and states. Impacted households would risk either losing connectivity or possibly incur late fees and debt with their broadband providers, risking their future ability to subscribe to services. Households with students risk losing connectivity shortly before the end of the academic year. Many states’ broadband and digital equity plans, which were required by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, rely on ACP to meet broadband affordability and broadband adoption goals. It is unclear how these states’ use of federal grants would be impacted – although state and federal grants will almost certainly not be as effective in the absence of ACP.
Even if an extension is eventually funded, if the program is allowed to lapse, cities, towns and villages will feel the strain. Many localities have worked hard to connect residents to ACP benefits, and any interruption in benefits will harm residents’ trust in government. Households that incur debt with broadband providers will face challenges in accessing housing and other applications that require good credit. Some communities may wish to directly assist residents with broadband subscriptions or in locating other low-cost options and resources, as they did at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic – but this time, emergency resources and funds to do this work are no longer available. Communities that have invested in assets and programs such as improved public wi-fi or hotspot lending may be able to keep residents connected on an emergency basis, but they are not a replacement for a dedicated in-home connection.
How Can We Save ACP?
- All local leaders should sign NLC’s letter urging Congress to pass the Affordable Connectivity Extension Act quickly. Local leaders should also contact the broadband providers serving their communities to discuss the ACP wind-down.
- Ensure that broadband providers are planning to follow the consumer protection requirements laid down in the FCC’s order.
- Local leaders should encourage broadband providers to communicate with their ACP customers about the Affordable Connectivity Extension Act and urge both providers and ACP beneficiaries to contact Congress as well.
Members of Congress must hear how the program has positively impacted local communities, how many residents are participating in the program, and how the rollout of forthcoming federal broadband grant programs in your state will be harmed. The National Digital Inclusion Alliance and Common Sense Media have both published online advocate toolkits that can be used by organizations and individual residents. State-by-state fact sheets on ACP participation are regularly updated by the White House.
The Affordable Connectivity Program has wide bipartisan support. ACP-enrolled households are in every municipality and congressional district in the country. The program can be saved – if advocates act quickly and Congress understands that an abrupt end to the program is an emergency and takes urgent steps to extend funding.