Will Congress continue to address the digital divide? Millions of Americans are counting on it. 


March 15, 2024

Millions of Americans with low incomes will begin to lose internet access this May if Congress does not renew funding for a popular program aimed at reducing the digital divide between those who can afford broadband access and those who cannot. 

Since the launch of the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) as part of bipartisan infrastructure legislation passed in 2021, the program has signed up an impressive 23 million Americans – the result of an effective outreach effort by the Biden Administration, state and local governments, and community organizers. 

But now, funding for the program is expected to expire at the end of April. And the program last month already began winding down operations – no longer, for example, accepting new applications. The program provides a monthly $30 stipend for qualifying Americans with low incomes — $75 for people living on tribal lands. 

Advocates for the program are left scratching their heads, noting that it enjoys bipartisan support in Congress, including both Democrat and Republican sponsors in the House and Senate – they say it would pass if brought to the House floor for a vote. But House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) has declined to do so and has not clearly laid out his reasons why. 

Of the 23 million for whom internet access is at risk, 1.7 million live in Texas alone. One of those is retiree Dave Corson of Spring, Texas, on the outskirts of Houston. “It would be $30 more I could apply to my grocery bill every (month),” Corson says. “It just helps people. It helps people who might not otherwise be able to keep paying that bill for their internet connection.” 

Advocates stress that the expiration of ACP will hit those at the low end of the income range the hardest. 

In an op-ed headlined “FCC Commissioner: Ending affordable internet is a gut punch to U.S. prosperity,” FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks notes that 49 percent of ACP households are “subscription vulnerable,” meaning they find the internet “very difficult to fit into their monthly budgets and are constantly on the edge of disconnection.” 

“Few states offer internet affordability programs for these households to fall back on,” Starks wrote. “Some may step in and try to create them, but others may not, and any state efforts are unlikely to match the Affordable Connectivity Program’s scale, let alone reach full implementation, in just a few months.” 

Last fall, the Biden Administration called for an additional $6 billion to extend ACP through 2024. And in his new budget proposal, President Biden renewed his $6 request. Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress have introduced the $7 billion Affordable Connectivity Program Extension Act, which counts among its sponsors Sens. J.D. Vance (R-OH) and Kevin Cramer (R-ND). 

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights agrees that Congress should pass additional funding. In November, the group joined other civil rights groups in calling on Congress to pass Biden’s original $6 billion request. 

“Without the additional $6 billion, millions of Americans reliant on ACP will lose access to high-speed internet, a fundamental civil right in the 21st century,” the groups wrote to congressional leaders. “In an evolving digital ecosystem, low-income and marginalized households in all districts cannot afford this risk.” 

Advocates argue that ACP helps Americans with low incomes in so many areas. It helps students have internet access so they can complete their homework. It helps adults find, and keep, jobs. It makes available telehealth, which saves consumers money because they don’t have to take the time or spend the money to attend medical appointments in person. And it helps social workers deliver services, again saving local and state governments time and money. 

“This vital program, which significantly lowers monthly internet bills for millions of struggling Americans, is a key lifeline to online work and education opportunities that will suddenly vanish later this spring if Congress fails to act,” wrote Connected Nation, which has fought for decades to erase the digital divide. “Failure to act will certainly only widen the Digital Divide after so much progress has been made to close it. That is unacceptable. Let’s not take a step backward.” 

In calling out Speaker Johnson, the Washington Post argues that there is both a progressive and a conservative case for the ACP. 

“His hesitation makes little sense,” the Post editorial board writes of Johnson’s failure to allow ACP funding on the House floor. “Of course, there’s a progressive case for the program: The government has a role in ensuring that every American has access to critical infrastructure, which broadband has proved to be. Without internet access, citizens have a harder time setting up health-care appointments, finding jobs, completing schoolwork and more. But this reality creates a strong conservative case for the program, too – and not only because the greatest percentage increase in enrollment has taken place in rural states that trend red.” 

Starks, the FCC Commissioner, concludes: 

“To put it plainly, the Affordable Connectivity Program is the most effective program we’ve had in helping low-income Americans get online and stay online. Indeed, it has been the most successful program ever in our decades-long bipartisan effort to solve the digital divide.” 

Affordable Connectivity Program
Digital divide