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Families, Older Adults Worry About Paying for Internet as Affordable Connectivity Program Ends

More than 1 in 6 households have relied on this initiative to deliver low-cost, high-speed internet

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Now that time has run out for the nearly 23.3 million households in a nationwide program to lower the cost of high-speed internet access, some don’t know how they will foot the bill themselves.

Without congressional action, the $14.2 billion Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) ran out of money around May 14, though some providers did extend their less-expensive rates after that.

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“It was a godsend for me because I had to cancel my internet service after I broke my leg,” says Thelma Hall, 62, of San Antonio. She broke her shinbone and knee in an April 2022 accident, lost her job and became isolated. “I had no income, but ACP came along just in time.”

The ACP and the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program (EBB) that preceded it grew from a little more than 1.5 million low-income households in May 2021 to helping more than 1 of every 6 U.S. households in February 2024. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was forced to shut down new enrollments Feb. 7 because no money was set aside to continue the program.

Surveys show support, need for the aid

Nearly 4 in 5 older adults say they want Congress to continue to appropriate money for the program, according to an AARP Research survey conducted Jan. 18 to 23 among 1,035 U.S. adults 50 and older. About the same number support the program in general.

An October survey from the Washington-based Benenson Strategy Group, in partnership with internet provider Comcast, showed that almost two-thirds of ACP participants of all ages feared losing their jobs or their household’s primary source of income if their eligibility ended.

The ACP provided $30-a-month payments to broadband companies for households that earn up to 200 percent of federal poverty guidelines. Internet service on tribal lands is subsidized at $75 per household because of the high cost of serving remote areas. In 2024, a person who lives alone qualified for ACP with a gross income of $30,120 or less in the continental United States.

“I think a lot of people fell through the cracks before the ACP program,” Evelyn Lewey, 56, told the Portland (Maine) Press Herald. She is a member of the Passamaquoddy Tribe in Pleasant Point, Maine, who works to connect people in her community to the internet. “I’m afraid now they’re going to lose it, and we’re going to have so many setbacks.”

Bill to extend internet discount program awaits action

Congress members leave Friday for a Memorial Day week in their states without voting on any of a few bipartisan alternatives to extend the Affordable Connectivity Program and funnel $6 billion to $7 billion to keep the federal subsidies in place with little disruption.

“If they took [ACP] away, it would be like taking food out of my mouth,” Shirleen Alexander, 72, of Charlotte, North Carolina, said earlier this year as the FCC began to wind down the program. She lives on a fixed income, and the subsidy has offset some of the stress she feels about medical bills. “I need the service, and some of my senior citizen friends need it as well.”

Abner Schlabach, 80, has been making fewer drives over winding roads from his home in Barnard, Vermont, to Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center more than 30 miles away in Lebanon, New Hampshire. His ACP-subsidized high-speed internet has allowed him to see many of his doctors virtually through telemedicine appointments.

“I’m on a fairly tight budget,” he said May 15 at a meeting with Sen. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) “The arrival of ACP was such a godsend for us.”

What seems like a small expense to some people allows Frances Russell a little more money for car fare to medical appointments. Russell, who is in her mid-70s and lives in a low-income apartment in New York City, says she also can travel outside her neighborhood to buy healthier, less expensive food.

“Millions of older adults will lose their internet service,” says Dawit Kahsai, AARP’s government affairs director. “But we have a bipartisan solution right now in the Senate and House that would provide a one-year runway to allow policymakers to figure out how to make the program sustainable for the long term.”

Older adults benefit. Adults 50 or older led more than 10 million of the participating households, 45.6 percent of the total as of Feb. 8, the day after enrollment ended. The ACP doesn’t count the total number of people served; it looks at households, not individuals, because utility bills serve addresses.

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Nearly half the households in the ACP are military families, the White House says.

President Joe Biden has compared the necessity of high-speed internet to his grandfather’s need for a telephone in the 20th century as that technology evolved. Nearly 40 percent of households in America qualified for the $30-a-month credit, the Biden administration says. Census figures suggest that’s more than 50 million households.

Fast enough for video streaming. For an internet provider to receive the subsidy, speeds had to be at least 100 megabits per second (Mbps) where a company’s infrastructure supported it. That’s fast enough for a family of four to work from home, browse the web and stream high-definition video, the Biden administration says.

The FCC defines high-speed broadband as 25 Mbps for download speed and 3 Mbps for uploads. All of a company’s internet plans that meet the FCC standard have been eligible for the subsidy.

“Broadband is no longer nice to have. It’s a need to have for everyone, everywhere in this country,” FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel told a House subcommittee in November. FCC researchers estimate that only about 1 in 5 participating households had any form of high-speed internet previously.

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How to continue your high-speed internet service

Participants in the ACP should have received three notifications about the end of subsidies. The only one remaining for some might be the bill that has the final full-subsidy credit.

If you bought internet service from your broadband provider before you started receiving discounts, pay some money toward high-speed internet even with the discount, or have already told your broadband provider that you want to continue your internet plan without a subsidy, you can keep your plan. Contact your company if you want to stop the service.

If the subsidy means you have free internet or you have not said you want to continue service after the discounts end, tell your company if you want to stay connected at the undiscounted price.

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Areas with high participation. States and territories that have among the highest rates of poverty have benefited greatly from the program. Puerto Rico, the largest U.S. territory, ranks first in percentage of people in poverty including the states and the District of Columbia. More than half of its households were enrolled in the program as of Feb. 8.

Louisiana, Kentucky, Ohio and New York round out the top five ACP enrollment rates. Louisiana has the third-highest percentage of residents living in poverty, according to U.S. Census estimates for 2022. Kentucky, Ohio and New York have the seventh, 14th and 10th highest percentages, respectively.

Lifeline subsidy remains. One decades-old federal program, Lifeline, is still an option for households who earn 135 percent or less of federal poverty guidelines or have at least one family member in a public assistance program, such as Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) or Supplemental Security Income.

In 2024, a person who lives alone can qualify for Lifeline with a gross income of $20,331 or less in the continental United States. Income ceilings are higher in Alaska and Hawaii.

It provides a $9.25 discount on monthly phone or internet bills. Native Americans on tribal lands can get a larger discount. A printable form is available to enroll.

Older adults are less connected online

Although 9 in 10 U.S. households had home internet service in 2022, fewer than 65 percent of adults 65 and older were subscribers, according to Leichtman Research Group in Durham, New Hampshire.

Video: Why Are Older Adults Struggling to Get Internet Access?

That gap in the digital divide is what the federal discount programs were designed to fill.

The number of adults 85 and older enrolled in ACP was more than 407,000 as of Feb. 8. The percentage of the oldest adults in the program had been gradually rising past 1 percent since the subsidies began, and the number of subscribers 85 and older increased almost 5½ times since the end of 2021.

Older adults can benefit from digital literacy training

The Affordable Connectivity Program has been part of about $65 billion approved to improve access to reliable high-speed internet contained in the bipartisan infrastructure law that Biden signed Nov. 15, 2021. The law allocates $2.75 billion for digital literacy training to make sure that everyone — regardless of language, ability or age — has the skills needed to take advantage of their connection to the internet.

Connections are important. AARP has long championed high-speed internet access and digital literacy for all ages to help people connect with loved ones, shop, stream entertainment and work from home.

“From remote workvirtual education and upskilling, telehealth and even paying bills, being online is an integral part of our daily lives. Affordable high-speed internet service is especially important for older Americans, many on fixed incomes, who have too often been left behind,” says Nancy LeaMond, AARP’s chief advocacy and engagement officer.

Easier comparison of plans. Among the requirements that will continue after the ACP money runs out is a regulation that internet service providers display standard labels for consumers, inspired by government nutrition labeling. They will show internet download and upload speeds, monthly service costs, taxes, and equipment and other fees.

Most companies had to exhibit these labels by April 10. Small providers with 100,000 or fewer accounts have until Oct. 10. 

$42.5 billion for expansion to underserved areas

Though the White House says broadband providers collectively offer discounted high-speed internet in areas where more than 80 percent of the U.S. population lives, more than half the residents of rural areas don’t have the same options as those in or near cities.

About 14.5 million Americans — and 22 percent of those 65 and older — don’t have access to high-speed internet, the FCC says. Other estimates say as many as 42 million people in the U.S. are on the wrong side of the digital divide.

Nearly $42.5 billion is being allocated to bring high-speed internet to unserved areas to benefit families of all incomes, which Kahsai considers important for digital equity. The new service must have speeds of at least 100 Mbps for downloads and 20 Mbps for uploads:

  • Every state is receiving at least $107 million.
  • Nineteen states get allocations of more than $1 billion. They include Alabama, California, Georgia, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina, Texas, Virginia and Washington.
  • These resources, combined with past programs, will connect every resident and small business in each state, territory and the District of Columbia to high-speed internet by 2030.

“We have an opportunity to put a dent … in the digital divide,” Kahsai says.

Ways to learn

Senior Planet from AARP Live classes give you basic information about signing up for home internet. Its free classes are for anyone who wants to learn the basics and other skills after getting online.

The AARP Virtual Community Center has regularly scheduled free technology classes.

AARP Foundation offers programs and services to help older adults secure jobs, benefits, refunds and social connections.

Connect2Affect from AARP Foundation can help you combat social isolation.

This story, originally published March 2, 2021, has been updated and condensed. AARP’s John Waggoner and Linda Dono, as well as Kavish Harjai of the Associated Press, contributed.

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