Keep Internet for All


New Orleans      Part of President Biden’s infrastructure program sought to broaden access to the internet.  On one level, it sought to make broadband coverage universal at a cost of over $42 billion.  On another level, it sought to enable lower-income families to access the Internet by subsidizing the bills charged by private companies.  Most families would see $30 knocked off their bill every month, allowing some families to get the internet virtually free.  On tribal lands, as much as $75 could be eliminated from the charges, which helped because providing and receiving service in these more remote areas was more expensive. The program wasn’t cheap.  More than $14 billion was allocated for these purposes.  The program was wildly popular, with more than 23 million households signing up and participating.

Where does the Affordable Connectivity Program stand now?  That’s the problem.  The FCC says they are down to the last $2.5 billion to handle the subsidies and related expenses.  An FCC survey indicates that 48% of respondents said that they would switch to a slower, lower-cost plan, and 29% indicated that they would have to drop their internet service completely without the subsidy.  They need Congress to extend the appropriation to keep the program alive, and they absolutely should do so.

This isn’t a new problem or a surprise development.  I talked to the FCC’s spokesperson at the end of August last year for KABF and WAMF.   At that point, she seemed fairly confident that the program would be extended, given its popularity and success.  Unfortunately, to some degree, the program is now caught in the stalemate of Congressional dysfunction.

Vermont’s other Senator, Democrat Peter Welch, has sponsored a bill with bipartisan support to continue the program for an additional year at $7 billion, but doesn’t seem optimistic.  Ironically, South Dakota’s Republican Senator John Thune, coming from a state that has been a massive beneficiary of the more than $40 billion to extend broadband, as well as the targeted subsidy for native lands in his state where there are extensive reservations, has led an effort complaining that some providers haven’t played by the rules and have scammed the government.  Why lower income families should be punished for the abuses of greedy companies is beyond me?  Why not crack down on them and tighten the FCC’s accountability mechanisms, since all of these companies only existence is essentially a privilege afforded by the FCC?

West Virginia’s Republican Senator Shelley Moore Capito, another largely rural and lower income state getting huge benefits from every part of this program, is quoted as complaining that “Some people are receiving this benefit that don’t really need it….”  This is a standard issue political whine about any entitlement program that benefits lower income and working (ALICE) households.  The same FCC survey found that 22% of respondents didn’t have internet before the program, and 25% only had mobile service before enrolling.  Once again, there’s a straightforward solution:  enrollment is being done by the companies, so if someone is slipping through the net, tighten it down and demand the companies reimburse the subsidy.

Taking away these subsidies would kill the chance of internet for all, which has been a signature campaign for ACORN across North America.  What’s the point of the government subsidizing large and small internet providers across the country to extend broadband, if lower income customers can’t then access and afford the system?  I don’t hear these penny-pinching Senators complaining about these multi-billion-dollar corporate subsidies.

This has been a good program, and it needs to become permanent.  Like it or not, seven billion is a trivial expense for the government.  This is a program where the benefits are enormous to families and the overall economy, so Congress needs to stop bickering, do its job for the American people, and get on with it.