Will Congress Permanently Extend the Affordable Connectivity Program?

The program is helping low-income households afford internet access, but some experts warn that the fund will soon be depleted.

Will Congress Permanently Extend the Affordable Connectivity Program?
Graphic courtesy of ST.art / Adobe Stock

From the 12 Days of Broadband:

Some say that people are not enrolling in the Federal Communications Commission’s new subsidy for low-income households, the Affordable Connectivity Program. Others say that at the rate people are subscribing, the fund will soon run out of money.

At a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on Dec. 13, the National Digital Inclusion Alliance warned that the ACP is at risk of being deplenished. “Unless Congress takes action, this vital program will go away in just a few short years,” said the nonprofit’s executive director Angela Siefer at the hearing.

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Jonathan Spalter, head of broadband industry association US Telecom, warned the fund could run out of money by 2024. Both Spalter and the NDIA urged Congress to make the program permanent.

Despite this, more than $10 billion of the $14.2 billion program is still unallocated, according to an analysis by the Institute for Local Self Reliance. Just over 15 million (224,000 tribal) out of 37 million households are enrolled as of December, show data from the FCC’s program administrator, the Universal Service Administrative Company.

The program builds off the Emergency Broadband Benefit funded by the $2.3 trillion Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021,  passed on Dec. 30, 2020. The temporary EBB was transformed into the longer-lasting ACP under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of November 2021. The ACP offers a discount of up to $30 per month on a wireline or wireless broadband connection ($75 on tribal lands) and a one-time device discount of $100. Eligible Americans include those on programs including SNAP, Medicaid, Federal Public Housing Assistance, Lifeline and federal Pell grants.

To close the funding and enrollment gap, this summer the FCC launched the Affordable Connectivity Outreach Grant Program. The $100 million fund will support four separate marketing programs: The $60 million National Competitive Outreach Program, the $10 million Tribal Competitive Outreach Program, the $5 million Your Home, Your Internet Program and the $5 million ACP Navigator Pilot Program.

Internet service providers have also been emailing subscribers about the program and hosting events in apartment complexes promoting it. Meanwhile, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration is allowing applicants for broadband infrastructure planning grants to use money toward promoting the ACP.

The National Lifeline Association, a nonprofit group advocating for these broadband programs, has been urging the continued sustainability of the fund and promoting improvements. In a survey of 60,000 ACP enrollees released Dec. 14, 95 percent said they are consuming mobile broadband beyond their monthly data caps.

With 55 percent of ACP enrollees (about 8 million subscribers) on mobile broadband, according to USAC data, the NLA is urging the FCC to make available more affordable data.

But with the race to sign on as many households as possible, the program has also fallen into predatory hands. The FCC’s Office of Inspector General found in a September report evidence of ACP enrollment fraud, where a service provider would repeatedly sign on dozens or even hundreds of households using the information of a single qualifying person. Similar evidence of fraud was found under the program’s predecessor, where providers were signing up more households than students in schools.

Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., said in October that he sent letters to 13 service providers out of more than 1,300 program participants requesting information on potential “abusive, misleading, fraudulent, or otherwise predatory behaviors” in both ACP and EBB programs.

The FCC in November ordered annual reports on the ACP to gauge who is involved in the program and how the funds are being used.

Looking forward, the Republicans, who retook the House of Representatives following the November midterm elections, have already promised heightened oversight of the FCC and increased scrutiny of broadband programs specifically.