CONNECTION CRISIS: Since 2021, the federal government has helped families get low-cost internet. That could end in April. Photo:Shutterstock-Fernanda Reyes

The future of the Affordable Connectivity Program, a federal program that provides internet access to low-income families, is in limbo. Unless Congress steps in to fund it, over 23 million households—including thousands in San Benito County—will be cut off from the program by April of this year, when funding is expected to run out.

The program provides up to $30 per month toward internet service for eligible households and up to $75 for eligible households on tribal lands.

According to the Federal Communications Commission, the ACP will stop accepting new applications and enrollments on Feb. 7. Households that are approved, enrolled and are receiving the program’s monthly discount by Feb. 8 will continue to receive it until the money runs out.

The ACP was created in 2021, when Congress passed the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which allocated $14.2 billion for the FCC to create a program to help bridge the digital divide. After the Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns in 2020, schools switched to remote learning, which highlighted disparities in internet access for low-income families.

In San Benito County, out of 7,723 households eligible for the benefit, 2,642 are enrolled. The end of the ACP means uncertainty for low-income students needing to stay connected to the internet.

Locally, the Monterey Bay Economic Partnership is focused on providing accessibility, reliable broadband internet in the tri-county area comprising San Benito, Santa Cruz and Monterey counties. 

The MBEP is raising the alarm about the looming end of the ACP, and urged local governments and internet service providers to spread the word.

“Access to affordable and reliable internet is essential to the quality of life and economic well-being in the Monterey Bay region, but too many households struggle to afford monthly broadband service,” said MBEP president and CEO Tahra Goraya in a press release. “We must collaborate as a region to ensure that eligible households sign up before the Feb. 7 deadline, and to advocate for policies and programs that advance digital equity.”

However, local groups are not the only ones concerned about the implications of ACP’s end. In a Jan. 16 letter to Congress, the U.S. Council of Mayors urged senators and representatives to extend the service.

“Having quality and affordable broadband has become essential in America,” says the letter. “High-speed internet is a necessity for almost every American, connecting people to educational opportunities, telemedicine, and of course, opportunities for work and entrepreneurship.

Comcast, the nation’s largest home internet service provider, has also raised concern over what the end of ACP will mean to the stability of low-income households.

Comcast’s Project UP is its digital equity initiative that appropriated $1 billion to help connect low-income families to programs like ACP. The company recently commissioned a report by Benenson Strategy Group which found that “75% of ACP Participants fear losing access to important healthcare services, like online appointments or prescription medicine refills.” 

The report also found that 81% of parents in families receiving the benefit feared that their children will fall behind in school if they are unable to have internet access.

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