Emily Drabinski: Will Congress Keep Its Broadband Promise?

Or will it cut the cord for millions of Americans?

Emily Drabinski: Will Congress Keep Its Broadband Promise?
The author of this Expert Opinion is Emily Drabinski, president of the American Library Association.

Prince George’s County Memorial Library System received a $500,000 Affordable Connectivity Outreach Grant from the Federal Communications Commission in March to find and connect those living in eligible households with the $30 monthly discount available to home broadband. Libraries in New Jersey, Nashville, and New York City likewise received the outreach grant.

After months of hiring, developing their outreach program, and identifying eligible individuals, outreach grantees are hitting their stride. But instead of continuing that momentum into the new year, PGCMLS and other outreach grant recipients are facing a very different question from those we talk to that are eligible for the Affordable Connectivity Program.

Instead of the enthusiasm we’ve come to expect, library staff are being asked, “Why enroll in a program that may only last a few more months?” Once ISPs notify households the program is ending, the question will stop being asked; replaced with an assumption that funding will not be extended and that receiving a $30/month discount for only a couple of months just isn’t worth the effort. They’re not wrong.

If Congress lets this program expire, it’s deliberately deciding to imperil the best shot we have at closing the digital divide and truly connecting everyone to broadband. Outreach grants extend through June 2025, but lack of Congressional leadership means our work will end prematurely. And we’re not alone.

More than 185 other organizations across 46 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands received a total of $66 million to reach out into their communities both to inform residents about the program and provide one-stop enrollment events that would get them signed up for the subsidy immediately.

It’s likely that most of the 185 recipients are only now fully up and running, and capable of identifying and enrolling those that are truly disconnected – a large subset of Americans that are part of the broadband adoption gap. Think about your neighbors that need a helping hand to learn the digital skills required to get online. That is just one of many barriers holding back some of the most vulnerable in our communities from getting online.

Funding for the Affordable Connectivity Program will run out in a matter of months

The problem, of course, is that funding for the Affordable Connectivity Program itself will run out in a matter of months – May at the latest. Congress knows this. The media know this. The 185 entities who are receiving Outreach Grant funding know this. And, with increased frequency, those invited to the PGCMLS’ enrollment events know it as well.

It’s become fashionable for Congress to wait until the 11th hour – or even later – before acting. It’s become common that a desire to achieve a partisan “win” now supersedes extending a program that has helped those in nearly 23 million American households get connected to high-speed broadband – and that could help those in millions more.

Waiting to extend ACP funding weakens any elected official’s “campaign-speech” commitment to removing the digital divide, and directly undermines the efforts of all 185 Outreach Grant recipients to fulfill their commitment to their communities.

Prince George’s County Memorial Library System applied for the Outreach Grant last year because the library’s mission states that “we build relationships that support discovery by providing equal access to opportunities and experiences.” And in 2024, equal access to opportunities and experiences cannot and will not happen without equal access to the high-speed broadband required to learn, to apply for jobs, or to become the very best members of their communities.

“Equal access” is more than a catchy website mission statement; for library staff, it’s the day-to-day commitment to those serve ALL who live in our communities. And it’s also the commitment of 184 other organizations across the country – in red states and blue – to bring cost-effective home broadband access to everyone.

Now is the time for Congress to demonstrate a similar commitment and extend funding for the Affordable Connectivity Program. Let’s keep Americans connected to digital and economic opportunity.  Congress, don’t let that moment get away.

Emily Drabinski is the President of the American Library Association. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.