Joel Thayer and Diane Holland: We Need the Affordable Connectivity Program!

Keeping American families and veterans connected is too important to allow the ACP to lapse.

Joel Thayer and Diane Holland: We Need the Affordable Connectivity Program!
The authors of this Expert Opinion are Joel Thayer, president of the Digital Progress Institute and Diane Holland, president-elect of FCBA–The Tech Bar.

Today, American families know that they need high-speed broadband if they’re going to stay connected. And our leaders know that a connected country is needed to keep America at the forefront of innovation, progress, and global leadership.

That’s why a bipartisan Congress created the Affordable Connectivity Program in 2021 — a program that is now responsible for providing more than 17 million households with affordable broadband. But funding for that program is running out, and there may be nothing left next year if Congress doesn’t act soon.

The Affordable Connectivity Program is overwhelmingly popular. A strong, bipartisan majority of voters (78 percent) support continuing the ACP, including 64 percent of Republicans, 70 percent of Independents, and 95 percent of Democrats. It’s popular among the working class (82 percent support) and retirees (84 percent support).

It’s popular in the urban core (81 percent support) and rural America (73 percent support). Ninety-seven percent of registered voters who think America is heading in the right direction support it — as do 70 percent of those who think America is on the wrong track.

It’s not hard to see why. Every American family in every walk of life now recognizes the importance of broadband.

Access for rural veterans is now the primary means of telemedicine

For example, over half a million families in the program qualify as veterans. And what’s notable is that telehealth apps are quickly becoming the primary way veterans in rural areas receive healthcare from Veterans Administration hospitals. Indeed, more than 2.2 million veterans use telehealth capabilities to access primary care, instant care, and mental health care. So it’s no wonder one Veterans Administration official has lauded the program as a way to “improve the lives of Veterans and their families… [and] make it easier for them to access the benefits they have earned and deserve.”

Program participation is also geographically diverse. Twenty-nine percent of Kentuckians in the heart of Appalachia (KY-05) are enrolled, as are 25 percent of Louisianans in rural parishes (LA-05). Congressional districts in urban areas, such as in Los Angeles (CA-22) and in and around Jacksonville (FL-04), have similarly high enrollment rates of 31 percent and 17 percent, respectively.

So why is this popular, successful program in danger? In part, it’s due to the program’s wild success, which has lead to more competition for consumers and more access for low-income American families and veterans. That’s win-win-win for public policy, but it means that the $14.2 billion that Congress initially allocated won’t last for long. Indeed, even with the most conservative estimate, funding is likely to end mid-2024 at the latest.

What would it mean for ACP funding to expire?

So it’s worth asking: What would it mean if funding ran out? It would likely be regarded as a major policy failure at a time when Americans on both sides of the political aisle are struggling to regain their footing following the global pandemic and the physical and economic toll it has taken on us all. To drive this point home, Congress would be responsible for letting a program die that has proven to be a far more effective measure in connecting those on the wrong side of the digital divide to broadband in both rural and urban areas than its predecessors.

The inevitable outcome of extinguishing the Affordable Connectivity Program will be that millions of low-income households that have come to rely on broadband service will be cut off because they simply cannot afford it. That means telehealth would be out of reach for low-income veterans living in rural areas. That means newly connected families would lose their ability to remotely visit their relatives, study online or apply for a new job.

Moreover, access to broadband is now a key indicator of economic opportunity. As studies have consistently shown, a lack of broadband can perpetuate the cycle of poverty. This is especially true for those in traditional minority groups.

A study conducted by Deutsche Bank found that Black and Hispanic communities without access to broadband are more likely to be underprepared for 86 percent of the jobs that will be available by 2045. One reason is that most educational online tools, including remote tutoring sessions, online tutorials and research platforms, are simply out of reach.

That means that broadband and all of its benefits would go from affordable to out of reach for 330,000 families in Kentucky, 350,000 families in Arizona, 380,000 families in Louisiana, 800,000 families in Ohio and 1.1 million families in Florida.

We cannot let this program die on the vine.

The clock is nearing the eleventh hour for the Affordable Connectivity Program. Making broadband affordable has been — and is — a national priority. Ensuring new funds for the Affordable Connectivity Program should be a national priority as well. Keeping American families and veterans connected is too important to allow the program to lapse.

Joel Thayer is president of the Digital Progress Institute and an attorney based in Washington, D.C. The Digital Progress Institute is a nonprofit seeking to bridge the policy divide between telecom and tech through bipartisan consensus.

Diane Holland is an attorney and a former Federal Communications Commission senior official, currently serving as president-elect of FCBA – The Tech Bar. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

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