The Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) is likely to run out of its current funding sources by mid-2024 – potentially ending the flow of money to pay for affordable broadband connectivity and devices for the more than 17 million Americans that have benefited from the program.
The next big question: will Congress approve additional funding for the ACP?
The COVID-19 pandemic made it clear that affordable broadband access is critical to accessing essential services such as telehealth, school, and work. The ACP is a $14 billion benefit program launched by the FCC to ease the burden of monthly broadband services and the purchase of an internet-enabled device. It offers $30 toward monthly service for low-income households and $75 for those residing on Tribal lands.
During a Brookings Institution event on June 5, a panel of subject matter experts emphasized the criticality of affordable broadband access, and how the ACP has proven to be the best mechanism to date to reach that goal. But the panelists differed on whether and how Congress will fund the program beyond next year.
Former FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly stated that while the ACP is “the best mechanism … to date” for subsidizing low-income broadband, the current Congress is unlikely to pass funding for the ACP without changes to the program.
According to O’Rielly, Congress will want to address waste, fraud, and abuse with the program, and likely limit its eligibility. By some estimates, up to 40 percent of Americans currently qualify for the program.
“That’s probably not suitable for policymakers that I talked to on Capitol Hill. It’s just not in the cards,” he said.
However, O’Rielly added that while the ACP program deserves appropriate scrutiny on its effectiveness, he emphasized that the program “can be defended” and “deserves additional funding.”
The ACP was approved with bipartisan support as part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act during the last Congress. However, it’s unclear if that same support remains among legislators, with or without changes.
Some Republicans inquired about a range of concerns with the program, including that it does not appear to be “targeting non-adopters” versus existing subscribers, in a May 8 letter to the FCC Office of the Inspector General (IG).
The IG responded that it lacked data to answer the lawmakers’ questions, but that it’s “currently conducting an audit to determine if the FCC developed effective program goals and performance measures to accurately report the performance results of the ACP.”
Kathryn de Wit, project director for the Broadband Access Initiative at The Pew Charitable Trusts, was more optimistic about the possibility of further ACP funding, citing bipartisan support for more funding.
She explained that affordable broadband is not a blue-state or red-state issue. Rather, she said, it’s a nationwide concern as evidenced by high enrollment numbers in both rural and urban areas.
“There is strong bipartisan support for the expansion of ACP funding among voters. That is 95 percent of Democrats, 70 percent of Independents, and 64 percent of Republicans,” Wit said. She added that many rural states have increased their enrollment into the ACP, alongside state-run broadband efforts.
“Even before the pandemic we saw this bipartisan support from rural and urban areas for affordable broadband because they believed that without access broadband there is a limitation to economic opportunities, access to education, businesses attraction, and even healthcare,” she said.
Another question is whether the FCC should remain in charge of distributing ACP funds. The FCC is responsible for managing the ACP Outreach Grant Program which provides funding to increase awareness of and participation in the ACP among eligible households.
O’Rielly argued that the FCC can and should provide technical advice and insight on technical components of the program, but also that the agency is “not well suited” to act as a social distribution mechanism. He indicated that social service offices could be better suited to distributing ACP funds than the FCC.
“The FCC should participate in the umbrella structure of the ACP program and another entity, like states’ social services offices, can deal with the distribution process,” he said, adding that this structure will not reduce the quality of broadband products to the end user.
Fallon Wilson, vice president of policy at the Multicultural Media and Telecommunication Internet Council, disagreed with O’Rielly’s notion that social services could handle the distribution of ACP funds.
“The issue is that states’ social services offices are not equipped to handle the technical side of the broadband program. However, they can’t rely on their IT offices because while they understand the technical aspect of the program, they lack the social services to reach those who need the funds,” Wilson said.
She argued that what states need to do is establish an office or a partnership between IT and social services offices that would allow for collaboration between technical expertise and social engagement to ensure those in need of ACP funds got access to them.