Debra Berlyn: The ACP is Critical Aid for Low Income Older Adults

It is downright shocking that millions of low-income older adults will lose their broadband connection due to uncertainty of funding.

Debra Berlyn: The ACP is Critical Aid for Low Income Older Adults
The author of this Expert Opinion is Debra Berlyn, Executive Director of Project GOAL.

It is downright shocking that millions of low-income older adults, members of our one of our most vulnerable communities, will lose their broadband connection due to the uncertainty of funding for the Affordable Connectivity Program.  For older adults in financial need, the extension of funding for the ACP is critical.

The federal program, which has enrolled 23 million low-income households to help subsidize the cost of broadband for low-income consumers over the past couple of years, is also now no longer accepting any new enrollments now that funding for the program is expected to run out this year.

The Wall Street Journal just reported that this year, America will have the greatest number of people turning age 65 in U.S. history WSJ article. There will be a percentage of those entering this milestone who are low-income and lack access to broadband at home.  The ACP needs to continue to meet this ongoing need.

The older adult community has had a statistically wide gap when it comes to broadband access.  While the number of those over the age of 65 with broadband in the home has grown, it is still one of the biggest gaps of the digital divide.  At the start of the ACP, only 64% of those 65 and older had a broadband connection in the home Pew Research. The ACP has demonstrated that it is starting to close some of this divide.  According to the most recent data released, almost 20% of the ACP recipients are 65 and older and nearly half of those enrolled are over 50 years old ACP Enrollment Data.

The height of the pandemic is not that far in the rearview mirror, and the impact of living without a broadband connection was most deeply felt by the older community.  Often isolated in rural areas, or isolated in their homes during the pandemic, older adults without online access had to rely on others to get food, prescription drugs, and other supplies replenished. 

With only a landline to stay connected to their family, it was a dark and difficult time for many older individuals.  Those with broadband were able to order groceries and essential goods online, stay connected to loved ones with video chats, could engage in critical telehealth visits, and were assured of reliable up-to-date news, and weather and community information online.

We learned that the pandemic was a time of the haves and the have-nots for broadband services for Americans, and ACP has helped to break down the barriers of inequity in providing online access.  There is no one community that has felt that more greatly than older adults who are often living in isolation.  According to the National Council on Aging, social isolation in older adults can impact overall health and even lead to higher mortality rates and “technology has the potential to assist with relationship maintenance, social capital access, and even emotional support.”

On February 6, 2024, the White House released a press statement and fact sheet in support of extending funding for ACP, praising how the program has significantly closed a gap for low-income individuals that lacked high-speed access because it wasn’t affordable. 

It stated, “In particular, these inequities impact underserved communities, rural communities, veterans, and older Americans where the lack of affordable, reliable high-speed internet contributes to significant economic, health and other disparities.” 

The ACP Program has also received unprecedented bipartisan support from Members of Congress.  As enrollments continued to accelerate in 2023, it was clear that the initial funding for the ACP was going to run out and lead to the time when an additional allocation of funding from Congress would be necessary.  On January 10, a bipartisan, group of legislators introduced the Affordable Connectivity Program Extension Act to provide additional funding for the Program.  

Last month, hundreds of national and local advocacy organizations, internet service providers, trade associations, consumer organizations, labor unions, and other groups indicated their strong their support for this legislative proposal, in a letter to Congress. 

Continuation of the ACP is essential for all older low-income consumers. The ACP needs to continue to carry out the critical role it has played in helping to close the digital divide among our older adult community.

Debra Berlyn is the Executive Director of the Project to Get Older Adults onLine (Project GOAL), which works to promote the adoption of broadband for older adults, and to advance technology applications for the community. She is also president of Consumer Policy Solutions, is on the board of the National Consumers League, and is a board member and senior fellow with the Future of Privacy Forum. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

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