In Willmar, Becca Arens, who relies on Social Security benefits, has found great relief in a federal program that reduces the cost of internet service or cell service.
“If I did not have that $30 off my internet, I would be hurting,” explained Arens, aged 51. Losing the subsidy would mean her monthly internet bill exceeding $70, an amount she cannot manage with her disability benefits.
The Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) is crucial for over 238,000 low-income Minnesotans, including Arens, in bridging the digital gap. However, this assistance may be at risk for them and 2.5 million others nationwide.
Issued by the Federal Communications Commission, the program implemented during the pandemic faces a funding crisis. The $14.2 billion allocated by Congress is anticipated to be depleted by April, as per the FCC’s recent warning. Initiating the winding down process, the agency will cease accepting new applications and enrollments starting from Feb. 7.
In the absence of supplementary funding from Congress, the FCC predicts an eventual shutdown of the program later this year.
Conceived during the pandemic to support low-income households in maintaining vital connections, the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) facilitated access to family, jobs, medical services, and educational programs. Originally established as the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, it served as a temporary solution and was succeeded by the ACP in 2021 under the Biden administration.
The ACP introduced more modest subsidies, offering $30 per month for eligible households’ internet services and up to $75 per month for those residing in qualifying tribal lands. Its popularity soared, witnessing a consistent increase in participant numbers since its launch in December 2021.
To be eligible for the ACP, household income should not surpass 200% of the federal poverty level, equating to $30,120 for an individual and $62,400 for a family of four.
Other pathways to qualification involve participation in programs such as food stamps, Medicaid, or federal housing assistance. Students receiving a Pell grant also meet the criteria.
Additionally, eligible households have the opportunity to receive a one-time discount of up to $100 for purchasing a low-cost laptop, tablet, or desktop computer.
Becca Arens, reliant solely on Social Security Disability benefits, volunteers at NAMI Minnesota, a nonprofit aiding individual with mental illnesses. Despite reports indicating the ACP’s uncertain future, Arens, like many with limited resources, hopes for its continuity. She plans to raise awareness among her peers, emphasizing the importance of contacting their congressional representatives to address this critical issue.
“If we don’t fight for this, it will be going away,” she said.
Shortly after the FCC issued its warning last week, the Affordable Connectivity Program Act was introduced in both the U.S. House and Senate by bipartisan groups. The legislation, aimed at allocating $7 billion to sustain the program, has garnered support from major internet providers, telecom industry groups, AARP, labor organizations, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the NAACP.
“We are concerned about the end of (the ACP) and support the legislation,” said Brian Dietz, spokesman for the NCTA-The Internet and Television Association.
The program was criticized as “wasteful” by some congressional Republicans in a letter to FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel last month. The letter argued that a majority of low-income families already had broadband before applying for the subsidy.
Brian Dietz, spokesman for the NCTA-The Internet and Television Association, acknowledged that the ACP helped internet providers increase customer numbers, but specific figures were unavailable. Despite criticisms, the industry is actively lobbying Congress for additional funding for the program.
Grassroots support for lobbying efforts is being fostered by some providers. Spectrum, the broadband provider for Arens, reached out to her and other ACP beneficiaries via email, encouraging them to take immediate action to preserve their subsidy.
The email warned that without prompt intervention from Congress and the White House, the ACP and the associated monthly credit would conclude early in the year. Spectrum encouraged its customers to contact the White House and congressional representatives, providing a yellow button to send a pre-written message urging lawmakers to “fully fund the program and protect the credit that you rely on to stay connected.”