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Broadband subsidy program used by millions will expire next year if Congress doesn’t act

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LOS ANGELES– One of the characteristics cited by President Joe Biden in his plan to bring the internet to every home and business in the United States by 2030 was affordability. But a major federal program put in place to keep broadband costs low for low-income households is set to expire next year.

The Affordable Connectivity program did not reach all eligible people. According to an Associated Press analysis of registration and census data, less than 40% of eligible households have used the program, which provides monthly grants of $30, and in some cases up to $75, to help pay for internet connections.

Still, the program has been a lifeline for Kimberlyn Barton-Reyes, who is paraplegic and visually impaired. Barton-Reyes didn’t have to wait for an in-person appointment when a seizure alert system disconnected from her electric wheelchair in November. The company servicing her chair assessed the problem remotely, ordered the parts they needed, and quickly repaired the chair.

“Most people think ‘the internet isn’t a basic need,'” said Barton-Reyes, who lives in Austin, Texas. “It’s absolutely for me.”

Barton-Reyes depends on Social Security disability insurance for her income while she attends a vocational program for newly blind adults. She is able to pay for her internet connection through the Affordable Connectivity Program. Barton-Reyes, who said an autoimmune issue damaged her vision, is also working to get other eligible Austin residents to enroll.

But the future of the program is uncertain. Its main source of funding, a $14.2 billion allocation, is set to run out by mid-2024. This could end access to affordable broadband for millions and hamper efforts of the Biden administration to bring connectivity to the people who need it most.

“ACP is the best tool we’ve ever had to help people afford broadband,” said Drew Garner, Broadband Policy Advisor for Common Sense Media.

Advocacy groups are pushing Congress to extend the program.

“It is a successful program in many ways, but with untapped potential because there is still a long way to go to make this program truly universal to everyone eligible for CPA,” said Hernan Galperin, professor at the University of Southern California. studied the program.

Enrollments in about 30 states lag behind the national average. Louisiana and Ohio enrolled more than half of all eligible households.

“There’s probably no place in the state, regardless of population, where someone isn’t benefiting from the ACP program,” said Veneeth Iyengar, executive director of the Louisiana Broadband Program.

Ryan Collins, broadband program manager for the Buckeye Hills Regional Council in Ohio’s Appalachia, said the CPA is providing critical assistance.

“If it was grocery shopping or accessing the internet, they would pick groceries and therefore cancel their subscription,” Collins said.

The program was born out of a pandemic period and started with some 9 million households nationwide. Since then, participation has increased every month and now serves approximately 20.4 million households.

“If the funding goes down, all that momentum will be lost,” said Khotan Harmon, senior program manager for the city of Austin.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the program has already proven itself.

“The Affordable Connectivity Program, and its popularity, I think, is the kind of thing that will create the political support necessary for Congress to understand that this is, ultimately, an appropriate use of resources” , Vilsack said during a recent media call announcing new grants to boost rural broadband.

Advocates say letting the program expire could damage already tenuous relationships between consumers and internet service providers, just as the country embarks on an ambitious plan to expand access nationwide.

“It’s going to lead to long-term failures in our efforts to bridge the digital divide if people don’t believe the programs we offer them will exist for a while,” said Joe Kane, director of broadband policy at the Department of Information Technology and Information Technology. Foundation for Innovation.

Biden announced plans in June to distribute $42.5 billion to ensure broadband access for every American home and business. But ISPs bidding on public contracts will want to be sure they have customers.

“So not only will the end of ACP make it more difficult for individuals to access the service, it will also make it less likely that ISPs will provide the service to them to begin with,” Garner said.

Lawmakers from both parties, as well as the White House, support the program. Affordable internet was listed as a priority in an Aug. 10 letter from Biden’s budget director, Shalanda Young, to House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.

Participation also transcends political divides.

By the end of June, about 9.3 million households in Democratic districts and about 9.1 million households in Republican districts received this monthly allowance, according to the AP analysis.

Before receiving ACP benefits, Joanne Soares, a mother living in New Hampshire, and her three school-age children had to use her phone to access the Internet. Soares, who is deaf, said the home internet connection she can now afford allows her to reliably access a video interpretation service needed to communicate over the phone.

“I need the internet to be able to connect with others,” Soares said. “Without the internet, how am I supposed to make calls? »

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Harjai is a member of The Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a national, nonprofit service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to cover underreported stories.

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