Politics

Millions of low-income families will lose their Internet subsidies

Phyllis Jackson, a retired administrative assistant from Monroeville, Pa., signed up for home Internet service for the first time in about two decades early last year. She now regularly uses the Internet to pay her bills online, buy clothes, find new recipes and learn about her medications.

Ms. Jackson said she signed up for Internet service after signing up for a federal program offering a monthly discount to low-income households. That program, however, is expected to run out of funding this spring, making it harder for Ms. Jackson and millions of other households to afford to stay connected to the Internet.

“I really can’t live without it,” Ms. Jackson, 79, said. “As things stand, everyone should be able to use the computer.”

The 14.2 billion dollars Affordable Connectivity Program offers low-income households up to $30 off their internet bill each month, and households living on eligible tribal lands can receive up to $75 off each month. More than 23 million households benefit from either reduced bills or effectively free Internet service through the program.

But federal officials began winding down the program early last month, when they stopped accepting new applications and registrations. The program was incorporated into the Infrastructure Act 2021 replacing a program during pandemic which offered some households discounts on their Internet bills. Although there are some bipartisan support To maintain the subsidies, lawmakers did not pass an extension.

Participants will continue to receive full benefits through April, according to the Federal Communications Commission. In May, internet companies will have the option to grant partial discounts using remaining federal funding. Based on provider claims data as of February 15, the program had about $2.5 billion remainswhich is intended to cover grants and other program expenses.

The program is part of the Biden administration's broader initiative to connect every American to affordable high-speed internet, which officials hope will spur economic growth and expand access to health care and services. 'education. The administration is spend an additional $42.5 billion to expand broadband access to every corner of the country.

The administration is investing billions of dollars in expanding Internet access, largely because officials see it as a key way to strengthen the economy. In U.S. metropolitan areas, prime-age workers who have access to high-speed Internet on their home computers participate in the labor force at a much higher rate than those who do not have access, according to research from the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. Other research has shown that Internet connectivity can boost economic growth. in rural areashelping to create jobs and attract workers.

Some Democratic and Republican lawmakers have united around a bill that would provide $7 billion to fund the program for about a year. Sen. Peter Welch of Vermont, a Democrat who sponsored the bill, said he was encouraged by the bipartisan support but said it was “difficult to be optimistic.”

“It’s difficult to get anything done in this Congress,” Mr. Welch said. “Everything related to the budget becomes very controversial.”

In October, Biden administration officials sent Congress an additional letter $6 billion request to expand funding for the program, which they urged Republicans to support. “It is long past time for them to stand up for the American people so that we can continue our work to close the digital divide across America,” White House spokeswoman Robyn Patterson said in a statement. communicated.

FCC officials said additional funds are 'urgently needed' to help millions of homes stay connected to high-speed Internet. According to a investigation the FCC conducted surveys of program beneficiaries in December, 48 percent of respondents said they would switch to a less expensive plan that might be slower than their current plan, and 29 percent said they would drop the service after losing the benefit.

Paloma Perez, an FCC spokeswoman, said ending the program would be a “step backwards” and that officials were working with lawmakers to “think about what the future of this program would look like.”

But some Republicans argued the program was a waste. In a December letter At the FCC, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota and other Republican lawmakers have raised concerns about the program subsidizing households that already have Internet service. They also highlighted findings from the FCC's Office of Inspector General, which in recent months has expressed concerns that some providers are not complying with the program's rules and regulations. wrongly claim funds.

“Some people are getting this benefit when they don't really need it,” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia said at a conference. recent interview in local media. “So I think we need to be accountable and make sure that the people who are receiving this benefit are the ones who actually can't pay.”

According to the FCC survey, 22% of respondents said they had no Internet service and 25% only had mobile Internet service before enrolling in the program. Thirty percent of respondents said they have both mobile and home Internet service.

Blair Levin, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and head of the FCC during the Obama administration, said changes to the program would be problematic, but that lawmakers would need to reach a compromise before millions of Americans risk losing access to the Internet.

Ms. Jackson, who enrolled in the program with the help of a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit, said she wasn't sure she would be able to afford internet service after the program ended. She said she will likely have to buy fewer groceries and reduce her electricity usage to reduce expenses, but her monthly rent is also expected to increase by $50 next month.

Ending the grant program could also complicate the Biden administration's other plans. $42.5 billion program providing all Americans with access to broadband, said Drew Garner, director of policy engagement at the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society. The funds, which will be distributed as grants to Internet service providers, are intended to cover much of the cost of building broadband infrastructure.

However, without the subsidy program, more low-income households will struggle to afford broadband service. With fewer potential customers in low-income areas, Internet service providers will have less incentive to expand the service in those neighborhoods and could apply for larger federal grants, Mr. Garner said.

“It's a huge task to reach every unconnected household in the country,” Garner said. “It’s going to be much more difficult without the ACP attracting infrastructure to these very difficult to access areas.”

Garner said the subsidy program also helped provide households with more stable internet access. In the year before enrolling in the program, many participants reported only having access to the internet during the months they could afford it. Although some households might abandon the service altogether, others might opt ​​for slower Internet plans, which could hamper their ability to complete many online tasks, Garner said.

Vincent Coleman, a 26-year-old medical student in Huntington, Virginia, said he'll probably have to cut back on his Internet plan. Although the new plan would cost about $40 a month – about the same amount he currently pays with the discount – he worries his Internet connection will be too slow to watch lectures or view patient records at home .

Mr Coleman said the benefit helped bring relief to him and his wife.

“It’s a big help,” Mr. Coleman said. “Finances are always a major source of stress and I budget very carefully. »

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