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Nearly 200K CT households at risk of losing internet subsidies as federal program winds down

Connecticut residents are losing options to access affordable internet benefits with no action at the federal or state level.
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Connecticut residents are losing options to access affordable internet benefits with no action at the federal or state level.

A federal program that reduces monthly internet bills is winding down at the end of May, absent last-minute congressional action. That has prompted concerns among advocates and low-income households enrolled in the program, including the nearly 200,000 in Connecticut.

The Affordable Connectivity Program – implemented as part of bipartisan infrastructure legislation passed in 2021 – aimed to get more people connected to the internet, particularly during the pandemic. Those who rely on the subsidy worry what it will mean for future access to health care and education.

The ACP provided discounts up to $30 a month – or up to $75 a month on qualifying tribal lands – with participating providers. It also gave a one-time $100 discount to buy a computer, laptop or tablet. People were eligible if their income was 200% or below the federal poverty line or on Medicaid, nutrition assistance programs, or free or reduced school breakfast or lunch.

April was the last month of full benefits for more than 186,000 households enrolled across Connecticut. For May, they are only getting partial subsidies. The maximum reimbursement will be $14 or $35 for qualifying tribal lands, and the connected device benefit was slashed to $47.

After May, the ACP will completely run out of money and stop providing benefits altogether. That could change if Congress passes more funding, but legislation to do so is unlikely to move fast enough before the end of the month and could stall during an election year .

One in eight households across Connecticut are receiving the federal internet subsidies. And almost half of Connecticut enrollees are adults 50 and older, according to research from AARP.

Internet access is “starting to be something for all of us – for students, for people using telehealth, for jobs, for everything under the sun – that equals necessity,” said Nora Duncan, who serves as the state director of AARP Connecticut.

CT effort dies in state legislature

Legislators in Connecticut had hoped a wide-ranging consumer protection bill could help address the federal gap.

In an initial version, Senate Bill 3 would have required certain companies to charge no more than $40 a month with minimum speed requirements. The bill passed the state Senate despite facing opposition from some lawmakers and the telecommunications industry. But the charging provision was amended and replaced with a study to be conducted on broadband access by the state’s consumer counsel office. The House debated the bill for a few hours, but did not take a vote on the final day of the legislative session earlier this month.

As funding in Connecticut and across the U.S. is uncertain, a national survey of ACP enrollees from Benenson Strategy Group found that they have concerns about their internet subsidies running out. Nearly all participants surveyed said they would have a difficult time affording groceries, utilities, housing and health care.

In that survey, 65% of enrollees fear job loss, especially with remote work. Meanwhile, 75% worry about the loss of access to health care like telehealth appointments and 81% fear their children will struggle with school.

Nearly half of ACP recipients across the country are military families, while about a quarter are seniors. Those groups, including individuals with disabilities and those living in rural areas, are less connected or struggle with affording monthly internet costs.

The Federal Communications Commission, which set up the program, has been pushing Congress to keep it running through at least the end of the year. There are a few pieces of federal legislation, including some bipartisan proposals, to extend the ACP with either another $6 billion or $7 billion in funding. One proposal would result in a smaller group of people getting subsidies compared to how the plan is currently structured surrounding eligibility.

“It feels to me we've come so far and saw kids sitting outside parking lots during COVID,” FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said at a Thursday congressional hearing about the FCC’s budget request. “It feels to me like we would make a mistake if we stopped now.”

CT works to address digital equity

In Connecticut, officials credit the ACP for helping expand internet access. And at the federal level, Connecticut’s congressional delegation, which is made up of all Democrats, has similarly been advocating to keep the program running.

According to Connecticut’s 2022 Broadband Report, nearly 90% of all eligible locations in the state had a broadband internet subscription. But the report also pointed out that the northwestern part of the state and rural areas in eastern Connecticut “have significant concentrations of unserved locations.”

In March, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration accepted Connecticut’s draft digital equity plan to help residents who lack connected devices and technical skills as well as to improve affordability.

If the ACP lapses next month, advocates like Duncan hope the digital equity plan can be a guide to figuring out which communities in Connecticut are unserved or underserved and potentially serve as a roadmap to taking up the issue of affordable broadband again during next year’s General Assembly session.

“It will help analyze where the disconnect is,” Duncan said. “It will help bring good information to lawmakers about what maybe they could do in the 2025 session.”

The FCC has “real limits” to do something if the ACP ends, according to Rosenworcel. She pointed to an existing federal program called Lifeline, though it provides a much smaller subsidy of $9.25 a month with stricter eligibility and not as many internet service providers participating.

Among Republicans, some skepticism for ACP

While the issue of affordable broadband and the program has enjoyed bipartisan support, some Republicans believe the ACP “is not working as Congress intended” and is driving up some internet costs because of demand. They argue many of the benefits are going to people who were already internet subscribers and should be more focused on those who do not have access.

“The ACP as currently designed does a poor job of directing support to those who truly need it, namely those who would not get service without a subsidy,” Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., said at a Senate hearing in early May on the future of broadband affordability.

Republicans also raised concerns about waste and abuse of the program. An audit from the FCC’s Office of the Inspector General released in January said the ACP could make some improvements on reporting compliance of participating providers and finding a better way to make sure providers are “maintaining proper documentation supporting reimbursement claims.”

At the same hearing, Kathryn de Wit, project director for the broadband access initiative at the nonpartisan Pew Charitable Trust, testified she would also like to see improvements, but noted that state broadband offices have “raised alarms” about the ACP coming to an end.

“ACP should be improved to better reach the households that need it and ensure the taxpayers are being protected from waste, fraud and abuse,” de Wit said, adding that the program should be extended “to support broadband that Americans can use it for access to education, health care, job opportunities and more.”

The Connecticut Mirror/Connecticut Public Radio federal policy reporter position is made possible, in part, by funding from the Robert and Margaret Patricelli Family Foundation.

Lisa Hagen is CT Public and CT Mirror’s shared Federal Policy Reporter. Based in Washington, D.C., she focuses on the impact of federal policy in Connecticut and covers the state’s congressional delegation. Lisa previously covered national politics and campaigns for U.S. News & World Report, The Hill and National Journal’s Hotline.

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