White House, counties urge Congress to extend Affordable Connectivity Program
Elected officials at the local and federal level are urging Congress to extend funding for the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), which offers discounted broadband service to low-income households, providing access to healthcare, education and employment.
Lake County, Ill. Board Member Jennifer Clark, who is also chair of the county’s special committee on broadband, said the program is “absolutely vital” to bridging the digital divide.
“I talk to families all the time who can now have affordable high-speed internet at their homes,” Clark said. “They’re working from home remotely, they’re applying for jobs, they’re accessing health care, they’re signing up for doctor’s appointments and they’re really part of our economy and part of our community.
“To take away the ACP program would cut off millions of Americans from the internet and it would really be heartbreaking … All that we’ve built behind this program has really enriched our residents and our country’s economy and to see it go away just because Congress doesn’t fund it, it’s really almost unfathomable to me that that would happen.”
More than 20 million households across the country have enrolled in the program, which provides subsidies of $30 a month ($75 for Tribal lands and high-cost rural areas) under the qualifications of having an income at or below 200% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines or enrollment in government assistance programming, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Medicaid.
The Biden administration recently requested $6 billion in funding from Congress to continue ACP, which is predicted to run out of funding by April 2024, and in August, 45 bipartisan members of Congress, led by Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), called for an extension of the program.
“We have a unique window of opportunity to ensure that every family and child — rural, urban and suburban — have access to affordable broadband, and can thrive in the digital age,” read the letter, penned to then-Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
“ACP has become a lifeline for Americans, and we cannot afford to let it expire. We strongly urge you to prioritize the extension of funding for the Affordable Connectivity Program in the upcoming government appropriations bill,” the letter noted. “Failure to extend funding would not only leave millions of families without access to the internet but also hinder our long-term competitiveness as a nation.”’
Clark said that because Congress has not yet extended the funding, Lake County has seen a stagnation in people signing up for the benefits.
“A lot of people say, ‘Why should I take the time to sign up for this when it might end in a few months?’” she said. “… It’s so important for Congress to act soon, because if the money runs out, then millions of people will lose their internet access overnight, but it also makes it difficult to sign people up now, because they don’t know if it’s going to continue and don’t want to fill out the forms if it might end.”
SA Digital Connects, a partnership between the city of San Antonio and Bexar County, Texas, is working with local nonprofits to get as many eligible residents signed up for the broadband assistance as possible through its ACP Toolkit, an enrollment guide that has all of the necessary paperwork to apply and a breakdown of how to fill it out in both English and Spanish.
As of August, about 150,000 Bexar County households have enrolled in ACP, putting San Antonio in the top five metro areas in the country with the highest rates of enrollment.
SA Digital Connects also collaborates with Frost Bank to educate bankers on getting eligible clients signed up for the broadband benefits and the affordable housing provider Opportunity Home, which has an ACP grant to create a position to help people apply for the benefits.
“There’s that connection of digital literacy and financial literacy that’s being made,” said Marcie Trevino-Ripper, SA Digital Connects policy and data consultant. “I think it’s brilliant and I love that that has come together. ACP is hard to apply for, but we are trying to address every pain point imaginable to get people there.”
Lake County and San Diego County both also have language-inclusive initiatives in place to maximize accessibility to ACP benefits. Lake County distributes information on enrolling in ACP in numerous languages.
“You have to reach people where they are,” Clark said. “To understand some of these concepts, it’s important to speak to people in their own native languages, so it’s about language, but it’s also about making sure you’re using terms that people understand.
“Really you need to know how to use the internet to sign up [for ACP], so making sure we have navigators … because when you hear from someone in your community about the program, that’s where people really respond, because then they’re talking to someone who knows where they’re coming from and their background and can explain the program and its importance and really be effective that way.”
San Diego County, Calif.’s Department of Homeless Solutions and Equitable Communities received $500,000 in funding from the Federal Communications Commission to help more residents access quality and affordable internet through multilingual health worker outreach.
The community health workers get the word out about the benefits of enrolling in the ACP at different community events, helping eligible residents navigate language barriers, providing access to the technology and educating residents on the resources and technology literacy needed to sign up for the ACP, according to Barbara Jimenez, director of Homeless Solutions and Equitable Communities.
“Even though the application itself for the ACP looks relatively simple, what we’re finding is our community members, for lots of different reasons, really still need that enrollment support,” Jimenez said. “… There’s lots of different programs out there, lots of different entities saying, ‘You can get this for free or that for free,’ and I find that when we talk to community members, the fact that the county of San Diego and HSEC have these community health workers enrolling them brings a level of trust.”
Back in Bexar County, Trevino-Ripper emphasized that investing in access, affordability and adoption in broadband is essential in working toward digital equity.
“A household that is connected to high speed, affordable internet and a human being in that household who has a device and feels safe and secure online is going to be more economically mobile than anyone who is not, and at the end of the day, economic mobility for our community is a priority,” Trevino-Ripper said.
“Congress did an amazing favor to our local communities by passing the [Bipartisan] Infrastructure Law that resulted in the funding that came down — they need to do it again.”
“We all want high speed Internet, we want HD Netflix to be able to watch on our TV, but for the commissioners of both counties, our major concern is making sure that our phones work when we need them.”