The end of the Affordable Connectivity Program is almost here, threatening to widen the digital divide

Orange broadband cable is laid in a new development area.
Photo credit: Shutterstock

Almost a year ago, Brookings Metro and other experts were warning that, without action, the United States was likely take the biggest step any country has ever taken to widen rather than close its digital divide.

The reason? The Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), which provides a $30 per month subsidy for broadband to about 23 million homes, would run out of funds sometime in late April or May 2024.

Now, we’ve arrived at that precipice. And while there are congressional efforts to extend the funding, they currently face an uphill battle.

From a policy perspective, this is somewhat strange. Now that the ACP has been in operation for over two years, we have stronger data confirming its value than when legislators originally enacted the program as part of the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. As Congress then recognized, “a broadband connection and digital literacy are increasingly critical to how individuals participate in the society, economy, and civic institutions of the United States; and access health care and essential services, obtain education, and build careers.”

That congressional analysis is borne out in ACP participants’ fears about the program’s potential end. A recent study showed that 65% of ACP participants fear that losing broadband would result in losing their job or their household’s primary source of income; 75% fear losing access to health care; and 81% of ACP parents worry about their children falling behind in school.

And it is not just those families that will bear the cost—our entire economy will suffer from disconnecting people. For example, a recent economics working paper estimated that for every dollar spent on the ACP, the nation’s GDP increases by $3.89—nearly twice the multiplier of the far larger Broadband Equity Access and Deployment (BEAD) Program, which builds new digital infrastructure in unserved locations.

Further, disconnecting low-income people can raise the cost of government. As the largest health care insurer, the federal government should want to take advantage of savings such as those seen in a recent study finding the cost savings of using telehealth for patients with cancer ranged from $147 to $186 per visit, or the University of Pennsylvania study showing that telemedicine was 23% less expensive than in-person visits. Similarly, a recent study by the Department of Veterans Affairs found that “veterans who utilized a new tele-emergency service were nearly half as likely to visit an emergency department in-person and showed reduced short-term Veteran visits to emergency departments outside of VA.”

Given that the Medicaid-eligible population and the ACP-eligible population overlap significantly—and that, as the White House recently noted “nearly half of the households benefitting from ACP are military families,” many of whom are on government health care plans—the savings for the government in ensuring all can access telehealth likely more than pays for itself.

Those are not the only government savings to be found. Evidence shows that increased broadband affordability for low-income people leads to “increased employment rates and earnings of eligible individuals, driven by greater labor force participation and decreased probability of unemployment”—providing further savings to government unemployment insurance programs.

Failing to fund the ACP could even lead to increases in crime in years to come. As a country, we are already falling behind in terms of literacy. And the data is clear that there is “a strong connection between early low literacy skills and our country’s exploding incarceration rates.” At the same time, we know that reading scores are higher for those with broadband in the homes.

The political case is similarly strong. Last month, a conservative think tank released a poll showing 79% of voters support continuing the ACP, “including 62% of Republicans, 78% of Independents, and 96% of Democrats.” While that might surprise some, as of last November, ACP funds flowed slightly more to congressional districts represented by Republicans than Democrats. Further, a Georgetown University study wrote that “while large population states have naturally seen the largest subscriptions to the ACP, the greatest percentage changes in subscriptions have been in more rural, low-population states.” And, as Brookings noted last year, the ACP’s demise would reduce the reach of the BEAD Program, which almost entirely serves rural, Republican areas.

This, no doubt, is part of the reason the program has received bipartisan support. Late last year, 26 governors from both parties signed a letter that endorsed extending the program. And proposed legislation to do so already has 12 Republican House co-sponsors. With solid support from Democrats, the legislation would easily pass through the House if brought to the floor. The Senate version enjoys support from conservative Republican Senator J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) and Senator Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), suggesting passage in that chamber is also likely.

But extending the ACP is still a challenge, due to two obstacles.

The first is that the ACP, like all programs, is not perfect. Some legislators will not vote for an extension unless the program is changed to limit eligibility and costs. It is late in the day to be negotiating such adjustments, but if such changes would result in ACP continuing to assist the lion’s share of recipients, it may simply be the inevitable consequence of Beltway sausage-making.

Still, all the current legislative proposals appropriate limited funding such that even if passed, the program would face the same danger later this year. That is better than a cut-off this spring, but it is not ideal.

While focusing on the tweaks necessary to obtain passage, it would also be helpful for Congress to require the Federal Communications Commission, working with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Veterans Affairs, the Department of Education, the Department of Labor, and other government agencies that serve the ACP constituency to identify how to improve the program’s administration and, more importantly, how to produce better outcomes and lower costs through the online delivery of their health care, education, job training and placement, and other services. Such a study would not only improve those government services, but it would also identify the savings that would put the ACP on a more sustainable financial and political footing.

But there is a second, bigger problem. Even though enough House Democrats and Republicans together favor an ACP extension, the current Republican House leadership is following the “Hastert Rule,” by which the Republican Speaker will not allow legislation to be voted on unless a majority of Republicans will vote for it.

That is not the case today. But if members and their constituents understand how ending the program will likely raise the cost of government, increase illiteracy and crime, and decrease economic growth, that calculus could change.

The 2010 National Broadband Plan found that the cost of “digital exclusion is large and growing.” The COVID-19 pandemic illustrated that reality far better than the Plan, and created a political consensus that action had to be taken to close that divide. Trends in artificial intelligence will result in even worse impacts of the divide, particularly in education and health care.

The country can’t afford to step backward. Congress should extend the ACP to make sure there is not a massive disruption in the lives of those currently enrolled, and in doing so, ensure the program’s economic and political benefits flow long into the future.