New York Rep. Marc Molinaro speaking about funding for the American Connectivity Program with county officials at a press conference outside the U.S. Capitol building on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024.

New York Rep. Marc Molinaro speaking about funding for the American Connectivity Program with county officials at a press conference outside the U.S. Capitol building on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024. Kery Murakami

County officials lobby for internet subsidies

The FCC is currently turning away hundreds of thousands seeking assistance. If Congress doesn’t soon approve more funding, rural and urban county officials warn, millions will be plunged into “digital darkness.”

County officials on Tuesday urged Congress to fund the Affordable Connectivity Program, rather than risk millions of low-income families losing internet service when money for the program runs out at the end of April.

At a press conference outside the U.S. Capitol, rural and urban county officials said that as many as 23.3 million people receiving the $30-a-month subsidy under the program could be cut off from essential telemedicine services or unable to complete schoolwork at home. Smaller internet companies could also be forced to lay off workers if they lose customers.

Despite a bipartisan group in the House and Senate advocating for more funding, Rep. Marc Molinaro, R-N.Y., said the effort is facing opposition from some of his fellow Republicans. 

“For every good idea, there's plenty of opposition,” he told reporters at the press conference.

As the funding continues to dwindle and Congress unable to agree on federal spending, the Federal Communications Commission, which runs the program, began turning people away last week. The exact number of households that will be rejected is unknown. But an average of 586,738 households have been signing up for the program each month over the last year.

Molinaro acknowledged that he is concerned thousands more may be lose assistance next month if Congress still hasn’t acted to fund the program.

Nearly 23 million low-income families receive the monthly subsidy under the Affordable Connectivity Program, or ACP. About 7.2 million of them signed up in the past year, nearly doubling the number who receive assistance. Congress authorized $14.2 billion for the program under the 2021 infrastructure law.

The Senate on Wednesday broke for a two-week respite. They’ll return Feb. 26, which will leave just a little over three days to reach agreement among themselves and the House on 12 appropriations bills. The tight timeline has led many to speculate that Congress may have to pass a short-term spending bill for the fourth time. While a continuing resolution would avert a shutdown, it would not provide additional money for the ACP.

Members of Congress and county officials said they have begun hearing from program participants worried about the end of the monthly subsidy. Those people received notices from their broadband providers two weeks ago that they may soon lose the assistance. 

“I have people calling me saying, ‘I'm not going to be able to keep my internet. I'm not going to be able to afford it,’” said Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., who is among the bipartisan group pushing for additional funding.

The issue is among the top three priorities for members of the National Association of Counties, or NACo, who lobbied members of Congress on Wednesday to fund the program.

James Gore, the supervisor of Sonoma County, California, likened the potential end of the program to what was seen during the pandemic. “You saw kids taking their laptops to areas like in front of a Taco Bell or in front of another facility or going to a library because they did not have the ability to do their schoolwork at home.” 

That was a “clarion call” for county officials, he continued, “that we need to champion this or we will leave the most in need behind.”

Cook County, Illinois, Commissioner Monica Gordon argued that the program “plays a pivotal role in bridging the digital divide” for the county’s 350,000 households in the program.

“Access to affordable internet is essential for individuals and families to fully participate in the modern economy and society,” she said.

Jeff Griffiths, supervisor of the 10,000-square-mile Inyo County, California, discussed the program’s importance in rural areas. In addition to “touching every aspect of the social determinants from health and economic stability to education, social support and civic agency,” he said, it has also made it easier for those in his county, which includes Death Valley and is by the Sierra Mountains, to participate in democracy.

“In an area where it can take hours to reach a public meeting, or where accessing the state capital can be impossible during the winter, remote participation has enabled citizens in my community to have a greater voice with their governments than they've ever had,” he said.

The program is “a vital initiative,” Griffiths said, because “broadband accessibility remains a challenge. Especially in remote rural communities, building infrastructure is difficult and expensive. And the service that's provided is often too slow or expensive, and far beyond the financial needs of working families.”

Rep. Norma Torres, D-Calif., and another member of the bipartisan group seeking more funding, noted that one-fourth of those in the ACP are Latino and are “at risk of falling back into digital darkness.”

Molinaro added that 4 million of the households in the program are military families. Three million are families with school-aged children who receive free lunches.

The issue was also highlighted by NACo President and Ramsey County, Minnesota, Commissioner Mary Jo McGuire, during a meeting between the association’s leaders and Route Fifty last week.

“In a lot of families, mom and pop are both working. They may have three jobs between them just to put food on the table and keep the roof over their head. They can't afford a cable bill,” she said. “Their children still need that to be able to be competitive at school. They don't have a way to connect, so they're staying at school later or they're at the libraries. Being able to subsidize that cable service to the home so that children can study in their own homes and be able to function well is a necessary piece.”

Kery Murakami is a senior reporter for Route Fifty, covering Congress and federal policy. He can be reached at Follow @Kery_Murakami

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