The White House is pressing Congress to extend a subsidy program that helps one in six U.S. families afford internet and represents a key element of President Joe Biden’s promise to deliver reliable broadband service to every American household.
“For President Biden, internet is like water,” said Tom Perez, senior adviser and assistant to the president, on a call Monday with reporters. “It’s an essential public necessity that should be affordable and accessible to everyone.”
The Affordable Connectivity Program offers qualifying families discounts on their internet bills — $30 a month for most families and up to $75 a month for families on tribal lands. The one-time infusion of $14.2 billion for the program through the bipartisan infrastructure law is projected to run out of money at the end of April.
“Just as we wouldn’t turn off the water pipes in a moment like this, we should never turn off the high-speed internet that is the pipeline to opportunity and access to health care for so many people across this country,” Perez said.
The program has a wide swath of support from public interest groups, local- and state-level broadband officials, and big and small telecommunications providers.
“We were very aggressive in trying to assist our members with access to the program,” said Gary Johnson, CEO of Paul Bunyan Communications, a Minnesota-based internet provider. “Frankly, it was they have internet or not. It’s almost not a subsidy — it is enabling them to have internet at all.”
Paul Bunyan Communications, a member-owned broadband cooperative that serves households in north central Minnesota, is one of 1,700 participating internet service providers that began sending out notices last month indicating the program could expire without action from Congress.
“It seems to be a bipartisan issue — internet access and the importance of it,” Johnson said.
Indeed, the program serves nearly an equal number of households in Republican and Democratic congressional districts, according to an AP analysis.
Biden has likened his promise of affordable internet for all American households to the New Deal-era effort to provide electricity to much of rural America. Congress approved $65 billion for several broadband-related investments, including the ACP, in 2021 as part of a bipartisan infrastructure law. He traveled to North Carolina last month to tout its potential benefits, especially in wide swaths of the country that currently lack access to reliable, affordable internet service.
Beyond the immediate impact to enrolled families, the expiration of the ACP could have a ripple effect on the impact of other federal broadband investments and could erode trust between consumers and their internet providers.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers recently proposed a bill to sustain the ACP through the end of 2024 with an additional $7 billion in funding — a billion more than Biden asked Congress to appropriate for the program at the end of last year. However, no votes have been scheduled to move the bill forward, and it’s unclear if the program will be prioritized in a divided Congress.
Harjai reported from Los Angeles and is a corps member for The Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.