Bartlett Cleland: Only Conservatives Can Save the Affordable Connectivity Program

Even hardline conservatives should rally behind the ACP and the additional funding needed to keep the program alive.

Bartlett Cleland: Only Conservatives Can Save the Affordable Connectivity Program
This Expert Opinion was authored by Bartlett Cleland, Executive Director of the Innovation Economy Alliance

Our federal deficit is exploding, and America’s financial house is in disarray. The country’s borrowing costs are at their highest level in over 20 years, and the national debt has surpassed $34 trillion for the first in history. In this environment, implementing stringent fiscal policy should be the standard operating procedure for all conservatives. Yet it would be folly to allow the Affordable Connectivity Program, a federal broadband subsidy program, to expire.

The resistance to supporting another federal subsidy is more than valid. As Ronald Reagan famously said, the nine most terrifying words in the English language are: “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” Yet even hardline conservatives should rally behind the ACP and the additional funding needed to keep the program alive. Why?

The ACP is not a program that makes people dependent on the government. Instead, it helps them address their specific needs and participate in the digital economy, which is increasingly essential for routine life and prosperity.

The value of a broadband connection is increasingly obvious and fundamental to technology – powered by tech and connected to broadband, households can overcome disparities and access education, employment, healthcare, and financial resources and other opportunities. All, but especially those in need, are empowered to pull themselves up, and in turn, lower their reliance on other federal programs. As Steve Forbes said, the ACP is a “hand-up, not a handout.”

This economic downstream effect alone should be enough to rally conservatives behind the ACP, but there are even more benefits to the program that demonstrate why we need to prevent its imminent expiration.

Another advantage of the ACP is its structure. The program’s benefits flow directly to the consumer. This allows participating households to easily switch between service providers, which incentivizes competition and helps spur deployment to underserved and unserved communities. That is, consumers can shop the competitive marketplace, not be directed by the government to a government favored technology.

Time is rapidly running out and conservatives need to get on board with an ACP funding extension. Current funding is expiring now, and the Federal Communications Commission has already communicated what the program wind down looks like. In other words, it’s getting real.

The nightmare scenario of letting the ACP expire is not one that conservatives will want to own. More than 22 million households, including vast numbers in rural America, over 800,000 veterans, and 5 million seniors, rely on the program for affordable connectivity. If it ends, how many of them will still be online? What care and resources will they lose as a result that will set them back?

No doubt at all, there is valid criticism for the amount of taxpayer money that is depleting our coffers in the name of internet connectivity. The federal government has over 100 programs, spanning 15 agencies, which the GAO has said are part of a “fragmented, overlapping” web that results in a patchwork of federal funding. Clearly, a national strategy, and real leadership, is needed. Some of these programs – like the Universal Service Fund – could be folded and subsequent cost savings could be used to make the ACP permanent.

But for now, we need a solution and fast. Fortunately, there’s an option on the table. Legislation was recently introduced to fund the ACP. Aptly called the “Affordable Connectivity Program Extension Act,” the legislation has bicameral, bipartisan support – including from Republican Senators J.D. Vance and Kevin Cramer, and Representative Brian Fitzpatrick.

Being reticent to extend yet another federal program is the right instinct, especially if one has problems with the ACP’s eligibility criteria or want other changes.

Be conservative. Be orderly, thoughtful and deliberate. In fact, plenty could be torn out by its roots when it comes to government programs. However, a program that endeavors to include market mechanisms is not the first of what should yanked out or left to die. Yet time is running out. We can’t get lost in the fallacy of the perfect – we need to live in the reality of the pretty good. Don’t pull the plug on the millions of conservative American households that rely on the ACP.

Bartlett Cleland is the Executive Director of the Innovation Economy Alliance. This piece was originally published in TownHall, and is reprinted with permission.

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