To Keep America Connected, Washington Must Work Together
In the midst of the most challenging days of the COVID-19 pandemic three years ago, many of our society’s most fundamental institutions and services shifted online, including schools, healthcare, and millions of jobs. This laid bare the vital need for every American to get online, and further exposed the digital divide as a chasm between those who do and don’t have Internet access.
For many advocates like myself fighting to close disparities in society – racial, gender, social, economic – the situation we found ourselves in was unacceptable. There were children unable to learn, seniors unable to get healthcare, and workers unable to do their jobs.
It begged the question, “If we don’t address the digital divide now, then when?”
Thankfully, we came together in that moment to address the immediate need. Under the leadership of former FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, companies made several commitments to get and keep folks connected. At Comcast, that meant waiving past due balances and late fees, increasing Internet Essentials speeds, and providing two free months of Internet Essentials service to new customers.
Then, as part of the pandemic stimulus signed into law by President Trump in December 2020, a bipartisan Congress created the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB), which for the first time provided a federal subsidy for Internet service: $50/month for eligible households, $75/month on Tribal lands. The EBB was a great success – in its less than one year in existence, over 9 million households enrolled.
In late 2021, it was clear from the EBB’s success as well as a continued need to keep people connected that a longer-term solution was necessary. When Congress passed the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, signed into law by President Biden in November 2021, it created the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP). The ACP is managed by the FCC under the leadership of Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, who has long been committed to closing the digital divide.
The ACP, which today boasts over 17 million eligible households enrolled, provides folks with a $30/month benefit, $75/month on Tribal lands. With tens of millions of households eligible for the program, the ACP is the nation’s largest broadband affordability program ever.
And the ACP’s success is evident from coast to coast, with more than 45% of eligible households enrolled in Louisiana, 42% enrolled in Kentucky, 41% enrolled each in North Carolina and Nevada, and 38% enrolled in New York. These states alone account for nearly 3 million households enrolled.
As the numbers indicate, we still have work to do. Together with other Internet providers in partnership with the FCC and community organizations across the country, we’re spreading the word about the ACP so more families can get online – many for the first time. The result is over 120,000 new households signing up for the ACP each week.
But we can’t ignore the looming ACP funding cliff. The program’s funding will run out, fast. In some ways it’s a problem that is created by success – with more households signing up, the funding will run out sooner. Currently, it’s expected that the ACP will lose funding in the first half of 2024.
This can’t come at a worse time for families that today are thriving thanks to Internet that is essentially free thanks to plans offered by Internet providers, including Comcast, that provide great speeds within the $30/month benefit amount.
The loss of the ACP would be an unfortunate development for these families and the millions of others who don’t have to worry about the cost of a home Internet bill. Multiple studies have shown that access to the Internet drives economic growth and improves health outcomes in our communities – indicating a broader impact on the American economy.
I have long said that closing the digital divide will take all of us working together. It’s crucial to the economic success of families from South Carolina to Michigan and Tennessee to New Mexico, that policymakers work together to fund broadband programs like the ACP. It’s time for a bipartisan Congress and the administration to once again act and solve the affordability question once and for all, before it’s too late.
Broderick Johnson is Executive Vice President, Public Policy and Executive Vice President, Digital Equity for Comcast Corporation.