Unless Congress funnels additional money toward the nearly two-year-old Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) that helps make high-speed internet access available to almost 21 million low-income households, its resources will run out by the beginning of May, according to an analysis of federal data from Common Sense Media, a nonprofit best known for rating entertainment on its age appropriateness for children.
Although nearly 80 percent of 50- to 64-year-olds said they had home internet in 2021 in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, less than 65 percent of adults 65 and older were subscribers, according to the Washington-based nonprofit Pew Research Center. That gap in the digital divide is what ACP and its predecessor, the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, were designed to fill.
“High-speed internet is not a luxury any longer. It’s a necessity,” President Joe Biden said, comparing it to his grandfather’s need for a telephone as that technology evolved.
The Affordable Connectivity Program provides a $30-a-month subsidy to internet providers — $75 on tribal lands because of the high cost of serving remote areas — for households that earn up to 200 percent of federal poverty guidelines. If you live alone and have a gross income of $29,160 or less in the continental U.S., you can qualify for discounted high-speed internet.
Households with seven, eight or more members can participate in the federal program with incomes topping $80,000, $90,000 and $100,000, respectively. And higher income ceilings are available for people in Alaska and Hawaii because of higher costs of living in those states.
“Affordable connectivity is critical for millions of older Americans,” says Dawit Kahsai, AARP’s government affairs director. “From access to telehealth to connecting with loved ones and caregivers, affordable high-speed internet matters. … The Affordable Connectivity Program is vital for older adults, and it must be fully funded.”
Nearly 40 percent of households in America qualify for the $30-a-month credit, which means “most folks will get on for nothing,” the president said. Census figures suggest that that’s more than 50 million households.
For an internet provider to receive the subsidy, speeds must be at least 100 megabits per second (Mbps) where a company’s infrastructure supports it. That’s fast enough for a family of four to work from home, browse the web and stream high-definition video, the administration says.
The Federal Communications Commission (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 are eligible for the subsidy.
But without congressional action to extend ACP, the discounted rates will end when the money runs out, several carriers confirm on their websites, including CenturyLink with coverage in parts of 17 states, Cox with service in parts of 19 states and Viasat satellite internet. Program participants can stop their service but must tell a provider if they choose to continue without the discount.
Common Sense Media, which also advocates for digital equity, anticipates that service providers would start notifying participants as much as 90 days before the money would run out, but no official notification time frame has been established. Verizon, which has Fios and 5G home internet available in many areas of the country, also expects the FCC will notify providers and the public at least 60 days before the final month of service.