I’m a Law Student, and I’m a Recipient of the Affordable Connectivity Program

By Brandee McGee

Twenty million households currently save $30-$75 on their internet bills per month under the federal government’s Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP). If Congress does not extend funding before the end of this year, the program is set to expire in early 2024 — forcing millions of people in America to choose between paying their internet bill or putting food on the table. And the timing could not be worse: the student loan payment pause is ending, food and rent prices are rising, and more than half of all Americans are reporting that their wages have not kept up with increasing household costs. Limiting access to affordable internet would devastate families even further.

As with many public benefit programs, those who could benefit most from programs like the ACP are the least likely to be aware of them; even if they know about such programs, they often lack the resources to access them. Recipients are eligible based on household income, but half of ACP-eligible households still don’t even know about the program nearly two years since its inception. Unsurprisingly, those recipients who consider themselves to have high digital skills are more likely to sign up for the program than those who self-report low digital skills. This reality underscores the importance of extending funding for the ACP so that it can reach people who need affordable internet access the most — particularly in historically marginalized communities.

In my experience, many eligible individuals may not apply for benefits because they don’t want to “take resources from other people” or because of the stigma that comes with welfare and welfare-like programs. But that’s not how these public benefits programs work — and often it’s the opposite: The more eligible recipients who make good use of these programs, the more likely they are to continue to receive funding. Additionally, programs like the ACP are not “handouts” — we all collectively pay for these benefits from our tax dollars. Congress must extend funding for this program to help close the digital divide and give Americans an opportunity to succeed in our constantly technologically evolving society.

Although the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) launched the ACP at the end of 2021, I did not hear about it until many months later — despite being eligible. Once I signed up for food stamps, I was given resources about other benefits that I potentially qualified for — including the ACP. As a full-time law student, I spend much of my day doing schoolwork online and I sometimes take classes online. Many of my finals are also take-home exams that require an internet connection. If not for benefits programs like the ACP, I would have to take these classes and exams at the library or a coffee shop, where the environment could be very disruptive. In some cases, such as when prospective students take the LSAT or GRE, the proctors don’t allow you to take the exam in a public place because of the risk of cheating.

Not only does affordable internet access facilitate my studies, but all three legal internships I’ve completed in law school have been remote and therefore require that I have my own internet access. Remote internships have allowed me to work for organizations that I would not be able to work for otherwise because of how far they are from home. As a low-income student, these remote internships are invaluable because they grant us the same opportunities as wealthier students who can afford to move states temporarily, even for an unpaid internship. When I worked remotely for the California Department of Justice last spring, confidentiality was of the utmost importance — thus making the possibility of working in a public space virtually impossible.

Beyond school and work, affordable internet access at home is also vital for ensuring privacy during telehealth appointments — especially ones that involve highly sensitive information, like reproductive or mental health care. The transition to telehealth for counseling services was especially beneficial to me and my family during the pandemic because of the immunocompromised people in my family. Without affordable internet at home, taking those appointments in a public place with Wi-Fi would not have been an option because we were isolating for our safety.

The ease and peace of mind the telehealth option brought us made me realize how — for many people, and particularly for people with disabilities and older individuals — that option is more of a necessity than mere convenience. For Asian Americans, LGBTQIA+ people, and other people who have faced increased rates of hate crimes, affordable internet access not only allows them to attend appointments and order groceries from the safety of their homes, but it also facilitates access to life-saving social resources that provide solidarity and affirmation that may be difficult for them to find in person.

As the president of the Public Interest Law Foundation at University of San Diego School of Law, I have made helping students sign up for public benefits like the ACP a top priority of our student organization. Because law schools are disproportionately made up of wealthier students, it can be difficult to find fellow low-income peers. And when they feel comfortable exposing themselves as such, it can be just as difficult to convince them to sign up to receive these public benefits.

The ACP benefit is crucial for me, my studies, and my valuable contributions to society as a future public interest lawyer. Congress must extend the program to promote equity and opportunity for all students and families.

To see if you qualify for the ACP, please visit affordableconnectivity.gov.

Brandee McGee was a summer 2023 legal intern at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.