HELENA — Since the start of the COVID pandemic, Congress has appropriated billions of dollars to a program intended to help lower-income people afford internet access. Now, that funding is running out, and that’s forcing leaders to get ready for a transition.
Starting next month, the Affordable Connectivity Program is going to cut off new applications, because a long-term funding source hasn’t been approved.
The Federal Communications Commission created the Emergency Broadband Benefit during the pandemic, to help families access remote work, school and other services. In 2021, as part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, that emergency program was replaced by the ACP. The bipartisan infrastructure law included $14 billion to fund the program.
The ACP provides a discount of up to $30 a month on internet service for eligible households, with a $75 per month benefit available to those living on tribal lands. People could qualify if their income was less than 200% of the federal poverty guidelines, if they participated in programs like Medicaid, SNAP, free or reduced-price school lunches or Section 8 housing vouchers, or if they qualified for a low-income service program their internet provider already offered.
As of this week, federal data shows 53,870 households in Montana are enrolled in the ACP. Yellowstone County had the most subscribers, with 10,025 in November 2023, followed by Missoula County with 7,019 and Cascade County with 5,972. Flathead County had 4,252 subscribers, Lewis and Clark County had 3,696, Silver Bow County had 3,343 and Gallatin County had 3,119.
Between January 2022 and November 2023, the ACP provided a reported $25,851,036 in support to Montana residents.
The FCC says, if Congress doesn’t approve any additional funding for the ACP, they’ll begin winding the program down. After Feb. 7, they’ll stop accepting new applications and enrollments. Households who are enrolled by that deadline will continue to receive the benefit until the funding runs out. Currently, the FCC says the money is expected to last through April, with only partial support available in May.
Charter Communications operates Spectrum, one of the largest internet providers in Montana. One recent article said Charter likely has well over 4 million customers on ACP nationwide.
“Spectrum was a day one participant in the Affordable Connectivity Program and has helped millions of families get and stay connected,” a spokesperson said in a statement to MTN. “With the potential end of funding for the program, we have been following the FCC’s requirements for communicating with our customers who are enrolled in ACP.”
The company encouraged customers to contact their members of Congress and ask for the ACP to be extended.
BroadbandMT, an association of regional Montana telecom companies, also shared a statement with MTN.
“ACP is a successor program to the Emergency Broadband Benefit created to help low-income consumers continue to receive broadband services during and post COVID,” a spokesperson said. “BroadbandMT members will continue to participate if extended, but understand it was not intended to be long term. There are other programs available, like the FCC’s Lifeline program, for low-income households to take advantage of.”
The Lifeline program offers eligible customers up to $9.25 a month off the cost of phone or internet service. It’s open to people making up to 135% of the federal poverty guidelines, and not every federal assistance program that qualified someone for ACP applies to Lifeline.