When the pandemic hit in 2020, the home office became a staple of households across the country — making access to the internet critical. Studies show that as many as 90% of Americans have the internet at home. But families who can't afford it are put at a significant disadvantage.
The federal Affordable Connectivity Program, or ACP, has been helping reduce that digital divide. The program's roots date back to the pandemic. Then the bipartisan infrastructure law transitioned the previous program into the ACP, and increased the funding total to $17 billion.
"Research has shown consistently that for people who do not have internet service at home, affordability is the chief reason that they cite for why they don't have service at home," said John Horrigan, a senior fellow at the Benton Institute on Broadband and Society.
Enrollment has gone up every month the program has been available, and as of Jan. 1, more than 22 million households have signed up.
"My estimates indicate that about a quarter of ACP households are new to the internet, with the remainder being households that heretofore had been subscription-vulnerable households, that might have in the prior year lost service due to economic hardship," said Horrigan.
But the ACP is expected to run out of money later this year. Exactly when the program's funds run dry will depend on how many households are signing up. Without new funding from Congress, families in every state are at risk of losing access to the internet, and we're not just talking about losing Netflix or Instagram.
"Telehealth is a great example. Online tutoring that may help reverse learning loss that came about because of the pandemic is another example. So we'll see a huge number of not just inconveniences for the households who will no longer have internet service, but really interruptions in the productivity of delivering lots of important services," explained Horrigan.
Members of Congress are talking about adding new funding to the ACP. But some lawmakers have raised concerns about the program's management and who is benefiting from the monthly subsidy. It's unclear if lawmakers will vote to continue the program, but the political reality is that getting any new funding approved in this divided Congress will be difficult.
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