Why Congress Must Save the Affordable Connectivity Program

By Frank Nolan

As the past three years have made clear, the importance of digital connectivity is here to stay — and access should be considered a 21st century civil and human right. Reliable internet is essential for work, education, health care, news and information, and access to critical government services and programs. It provides telemedicine to seniors and veterans, plugs the homework gap by enabling children to learn at home, and creates immediate and long-lasting economic benefits.

The Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) is a new federal program that has helped more people afford to stay connected to the internet — but the future of this program is now at risk.

The story of Dana from Ohio, collected by our partners at Common Cause, illustrates the importance of this program: “Without the ACP, I will not be able to afford Internet. The price of everything has gone up so much, from the pandemic, that my Veterans Pension is no longer enough to live on. Because of the ACP I was able to get set up to be able to vote by mail. I really hope that the ACP can be saved. I just recently got my 78-year-old aunt on the ACP, so she could finally have internet. I have been able to make video calls with her now. Please don’t take this away from us.”

Dana’s experience is not unique. Access to affordable, reliable broadband services is a civil rights concern — and it was made even more urgent by the financial hardship brought on by the pandemic, which was especially acute for those on the wrong side of the digital divide. Fortunately, at the urging of advocates, Congress stepped up — in a bipartisan nature — to establish the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) program, which launched in May of 2021. Since then, the program has transitioned to something longer term, now known as the ACP, which began on December 31, 2021. More than 18 million households in America are currently connected to the internet through the ACP, with enrollment continuing to increase steadily. Thanks to the ACP, these households collectively save more than $500 million a month on internet expenses. The ACP has also helped to start narrowing the digital divide that continues to disadvantage communities of color and low-income families. But this important federal program remains temporary — with dollars looking to run out early next year.

Civil rights organizations have partnered with Congress, the Biden administration, internet service providers, and other stakeholders to spread the word about the ACP so that those who need it most are informed and can get connected. For example, the National Urban League has been working with local chapters to raise awareness about the program. This summer, UnidosUS is launching two distinct ACP awareness and outreach initiatives to train local community-based organizations who are part of the organization’s Affiliate Network to act as digital community navigators and help eligible households enroll in the program and get connected. And the National Consumer Law Center has been producing fact sheets and social media resources focused on the ACP’s impact on students and educators, older adults, rural consumers, veterans and service members, patients and tele-health care providers, and survivors of domestic violence.

The future of the ACP is not guaranteed. Congress needs to step up again and ensure adequate funding to continue the program. As more than 230 organizations have told policymakers, without action from Congress this year, millions of households could immediately lose service — and access to their daily, hybrid way of life.

The loss of the ACP would also reduce the efficacy of Congress’ groundbreaking $42 billion investment in the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program. A recent study concluded that the ACP reduces the size of the subsidy needed to incentivize broadband deployment in rural areas by 25 percent. Simply put: The ACP makes BEAD program dollars go farther.

On a bipartisan basis, Congress recognized — despite decades of digital discrimination — that we must all be connected if we want America to endure and prosper. But without adequate and sustained funding for the ACP, Congress will not be able to keep everyone online and meet its goal of universal deployment and adoption.

Frank Nolan is the senior campaigns and programs associate at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.