The Affordable Connectivity Program May “Go Away” Just When it is Needed Most

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By Marc McCarty

They say timing is everything, and that certainly likely will be the case as we move forward this year to implement major components of the 2021 Federal Infrastructure legislation (the Infrastructure Act). You may recall that the Infrastructure Act appropriated $65 billion with the objective of providing every residence, business and institution in the United States a high-speed internet connection – broadband, and the skills to use it. The Act has three goals: building out the infrastructure needed to connect unserved and underserved locations (broadband “access”), getting individuals the skills-based training and resources they need to use a broadband connection effectively (“adoption”), and finally, making broadband affordable for households that lack the financial resources to subscribe for the broadband connection they need (“affordability”).

The rationale for this “three-prong” approach is logical. It makes little sense to build out a broadband network in unconnected communities if most of the targeted individuals are afraid to go online or lack the skills needed to use the internet applications that would help them the most. These skills, include using the internet to start a business, pay bills and bank online, connect with a health care provider, or get an advanced education certification or degree. Equally obvious, having a fiber optic broadband connection at your home is of no value if you can’t afford to subscribe for service, or if you can’t afford a basic device to connect to the internet efficiently.

With this in mind, an earlier Blog noted that the Infrastructure Act had allocated at least $46 billion of grants and low interest loans for broadband access, up to least $4.75 billion for broadband adoption programs, and $14.2 billion for broadband affordability (the Affordable Connectivity Program or “ACP”).

The ACP was designed to permanently replace the Emergency Broadband Benefit (“ECB”) a similar temporary program enacted during the COVID pandemic. Like the ECB, ACP is targeted to help families that lack financial resources pay for the internet service they need to use the internet effectively. While there are several ways to qualify for ACP, generally families earning less than twice the annual poverty income ($60,000 for a family of 4) are eligible for the ACP.

The ACP provides these households a $30 per month credit that can be applied to monthly cost of internet service and a one-time $100 credit toward the cost of a desktop, laptop or tablet computer to connect to the internet. The program began funding in 2022 and as of last week, over 22.5 million households were receiving benefits. One advantage of the ACP is that the “credit” can be applied by families toward any level of broadband service offered, so even if a household was able to pay for some internet connectivity before, the ACP enabled them to upgrade to a higher more expensive level of service, so they can take advantage of applications such as telemedicine and online learning that require a faster and more stable internet connection.

Many Missouri families now use this benefit. In several rural Missouri counties more than one in five households that are connected to the internet are receiving ACP. The truth is ACP has been so successful, that it is about to run out of money. The FCC administers this program, and it has already instructed internet service providers (“ISPs”) to send out the first of three written notices beginning January 25, to customers warning them the benefit will expire (likely sometime in May).

The ACP has wide support among participants, internet providers and the general public. Last week bipartisan legislation was introduced to extend funding for the ACP through the end of 2024. Certainly given the political environment, that may be the best we can do at this time, and even in this case passage of this legislation likely will not occur unless constituents make their wishes known.

Ironically, this comes at the very time when almost all the Infrastructure Act money set aside for broadband access (BEAD) and broadband adoption (DEA) remains unspent! The delay in funding BEAD and DEA occurred for many reasons, some of which I’ve written about already. However, Missouri’s Office of Broadband Development (OBD) now awaits approval of its “Initial Proposal” to distribute the first 20% of the $1.7 Billion dollars of BEAD funding along with a smaller DEA “State Capacity Grant” to fund broadband adoption. Those approvals (granted by the National Telecommunications and Information Agency –NTIA) are expected as early as late spring, followed by competitive grants that could begin funding new projects by year-end.

For a variety of reasons, the State’s BEAD proposal primarily contemplates using existing private and public ISPs to extend broadband service to the 400,000 locations in the state with no – or with inadequate – broadband access. Those ISPs provide access to the internet (fund capital expansion, maintain, and operate) primarily through subscriber revenues paid by businesses and residents. Locations needing broadband access lack it in most cases because the ISPs that potentially could serve them cannot make an adequate profit to justify the investment. The objective of the BEAD program is to use just enough public money to induce ISPs to expand service to these unserved and underserved locations.

For example, if the average cost of extending service to a group of locations was $5,000 per location, but an ISP could only be profitable if installation costs were no more than $1,500 per location, an efficient BEAD grant program would provide the ISP a grant of $3,500 per location, conditioned on the ISP going forward to provide broadband access to all of these unserved locations. But that example assumes that families and businesses in those locations actually will subscribe for the service (at levels as high as – or higher— than other areas where service is currently available). In other words – ISPs don’t need or necessarily want more locations with access to the internet – instead they want more locations with internet subscribers.

That is one practical reason why both the DEA, and the ACP exist. From a purely economic standpoint, both of these programs are designed to work alongside BEAD to increase demand for broadband service (the “take rate” as it’s known in the industry). The DEA gives folks the skills needed to appreciate and safely use internet based applications and technologies; the ACP makes that service affordable, so families to pay for the service they need.

Taken together one can think of these broadband programs BEAD, the DEA and the ACP as something like a three legged stool. The three legs of that stool provide funding for broadband access, adoption and affordability. Remove one of those legs, affordability in this case, and the stool – a $65 billion stool – may well topple over.

Of course there are many good reasons for providing financial assistance to families that can’t afford the broadband service they need besides creating a broadband network that is financially viable. Connecting most businesses and individuals to broadband has led to extraordinary gains in productivity and quality of life, but as the COVID pandemic illustrated, those gains have been uneven, with millions lacking adequate internet service and unable to use these new internet-based applications. We all pay when we leave the most economically vulnerable families disconnected to the internet applications we take for granted, in higher costs for healthcare, basic government services, substandard education, and fewer economic opportunities. A program like the ACP can help remove financial barriers to internet connectivity, and certainly it can be justified for that reason alone. However, allowing a program like the ACP to go away after all the work done over the past two years, and just as we are ready to spend over $45 billion on broadband expansion, is most certainly a mistake.