Funding for the subsidy to help low-income families pay for home internet service could end in May without congressional intervention.

Funding for the subsidy to help low-income families pay for home internet service could end in May without congressional intervention. Morsa Images/Getty Images

Federal broadband subsidy cut amid fears over its future

The Affordable Connectivity Program will pay some households just $14 in May, down from $30. Unless Congress acts on a $7 billion extension bill, it will run out of money at the end of the month, plunging some families, supporters warn, into “digital darkness.”

A federal subsidy that helps more than 23 million people across the country connect to broadband internet has been significantly cut back as of yesterday, even as state and federal officials acknowledge its benefits.

The Affordable Connectivity Program, a $30-a-month subsidy to help low-income families pay for home internet service, will run out of funds this month unless Congress acts. The Federal Communications Commission began winding down the program in January, announcing in March that April would be the last month participants would receive the full subsidy. Some households will continue to receive up to $14 in May.

Despite dire warnings of the consequences of expiration and numerous lobbying efforts by state and local leaders, the prospects of the program being extended are uncertain. Bipartisan, bicameral legislation to continue the ACP will be debated later this week in the Senate Commerce Committee, but the chances of the $7 billion Affordable Connectivity Program Extension Act passing are murky.

Those behind the bill warned of dramatic consequences if the ACP, funded by $14.2 billion from the 2021 infrastructure law, is allowed to expire at month’s end.

“Additional funding from Congress is the only near-term solution for keeping the ACP going,” wrote FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel in a statement. “If additional funding is not promptly appropriated, the 1 in 6 households nationwide that rely on this program will face rising bills and increasing disconnection. If the ACP ends, we risk reversing the significant progress this program has made towards closing the digital divide.”

“The Affordable Connectivity Program has kept 23.3 million households—working families, seniors, veterans and Tribal communities—connected to the internet they need for their jobs, telehealth appointments and classes,” said Vermont Sen. Peter Welch, a Democrat and one of the bill’s cosponsors. He added that the partial benefit “won’t be enough for many households,” and urged Congress to act before “families fall into digital darkness.”

A spokesperson for Republican Ohio Sen. J.D. Vance, another of the bill’s cosponsors, pointed in an email to a recent interview Vance gave where he said internet access is “one of those things like food, like medicine, where we have to make sure that everybody has access to it. It’s just a necessary part of living in the 21st century.” 

City leaders have also continued to sound the alarm about the consequences of letting the ACP expire. In a statement earlier this month, U.S. Conference of Mayors President and Reno, Nevada, Mayor Hillary Schieve said “Congress must put aside its partisan differences, embrace the spirit of the bipartisan infrastructure law and act to renew this critical program.”

“With a digital divide that has long contributed to chronic inequity in America, the ACP has given people a lifeline,” Schieve said. “After all the progress we’ve made to strengthen our cities, we cannot pull the plug on 23 million American families.”

U.S. Rep. Yvette Clarke of New York, one of the extension act’s cosponsors in the House, filed a discharge petition to attempt to fast-track consideration of the bill on the floor. That move received support earlier this month from several state and local government associations, who wrote a joint letter noting “broad support” for funding the ACP.

The consequences of the ACP’s expiration could be severe for states as they try to get more of their residents online. Many of their digital equity plans—required by the federal government to be eligible for $1.4 billion in grant funding—rely on the ACP’s continued existence to help keep broadband affordable. Many acknowledged in their plans that the program in their states is undersubscribed, indicating many of those eligible for the program are not aware of it.

According to FCC data, an average of 586,738 households a month and about 11,720 households per state had signed up for the program between January 2023 and January 2024.

But it is unclear whether congressional politics will allow for an extension. Despite bipartisan support for the pending bill, some Republicans have expressed reluctance to back it. In a letter to Rosenworcel late last year, four Republicans from both chambers questioned the program’s “effectiveness” and said warnings of millions losing broadband access with the ACP’s lapse in funding are “speculative.”

Research from inside and outside the federal government shows the program’s benefits. A FCC survey in February found that more than three-quarters of households that subscribe to the ACP will experience service disruptions if the program ends. And 68% said they had inconsistent connectivity or zero connectivity prior to ACP, with 80% citing affordability as the reason for that lack of connectivity.

In separate research, law firm Atticus found that 1 in 5 low-income Americans will not be able to afford the internet without the ACP. And that comes as the internet has become increasingly important: 84% of those surveyed by telecoms industry group Amdocs said internet connectivity is a basic necessity like electricity or running water.

“It's no longer an optionality in life: Connectivity is a fundamental necessity for human advancement,” said Anthony Goonetilleke, Amdocs’ chief strategy officer and group president. “Those that don't have it really get left behind, and this gap becomes wider and wider.”

In the meantime, federal officials reaffirmed their commitment to closing the digital divide and maintaining the ACP. At a Tuesday event hosted in Washington, D.C., by nonprofit Public Knowledge, Jon Donenberg, a deputy director at the National Economic Council, assailed Republican leaders and said they have “failed to act.” He urged them to listen to their rank-and-file members, many of whom support an extension.

FCC Commissioner Anna Gomez said the benefits of the ACP are clear in its attempts to reduce the digital divide and make the internet affordable for more people.

“We’ve made too much progress and come too far to go back,” Gomez said during the Public Knowledge event.