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N.C. Reps, Superintendents Rally to Save Affordable Connectivity Program

If passed, the Affordable Connectivity Program Extension Act of 2024 would appropriate $7 billion for fiscal year 2024 to save pandemic-era funds that helped families connect to the Internet.

Closeup of yellow broadband cables with blue plugs plugged into a board.
(TNS) — A federal program that helped lower-income households pay their Internet bills and connect to the Internet during the pandemic fully expires at the end of this month, but U.S. Rep. Kathy Manning is calling for it to continue.

During a news conference at Hunter Elementary in Greensboro on Friday, Manning enlisted Guilford County and Rockingham County schools superintendents and NC Sen. Michael Garrett, D-Guilford, to help make the case.

"One in four households in the Sixth District, one in five statewide, will see their Internet costs rise at a time where people are already struggling with rising food costs, rising rents, rising housing costs," Manning said. "I am here to tell all of you, my constituents, that I am fighting as hard as I can in Congress to stop this from happening."

Manning is among 230 members of the U.S. House of Representatives co-sponsoring a bill called the Affordable Connectivity Program Extension Act of 2024, that's meant to save the program. The bill would appropriate $7 billion for fiscal year 2024. Co-sponsors include members of both parties.

"The only way to get this bill across the finish line and save this program is for the Speaker of the House to bring this bill forward for a vote," Manning said during the news conference.

The program was part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the big bipartisan infrastructure deal passed by Congress and signed into law by President Biden in 2021.

According to Manning, the program helps 80,000 households in the Sixth District save between $30 and $75 per month on monthly Internet bills. The congressional district, represented by Manning, includes Guilford, Rockingham and Caswell counties, as well as a portion of Forsyth County.

Households were able to qualify for the program if their household income was at or below twice the the federal poverty threshold. That's just over $60,000 for a family of four in 2024. Households could also qualify if a member participated in one of a number of other federal assistance programs, met criteria for Internet providers' existing low-income programs, or participated in a tribal assistance program while living on tribal lands.

During the news conference, Guilford County Schools Superintendent Whitney Oakley said having to offer remote learning during the pandemic has changed how the district "does school."

The district's student registration process and choice school application processes are now fully online, she said. Grades and report cards are viewed online, and there's online tutoring and online summer enrichment programs for students. There's a virtual school, started during the pandemic, that students can attend entirely online, and the district still occasionally holds remote learning days.

"In short, access to the Internet is an essential part of life now in the modern era," Oakley said. "If our families can't get online, they often cannot fully take advantage of the opportunities that we are able to provide."

Rockingham County Superintendent John Stover said the school district invested effort and dollars, alongside other partners, toward expanding infrastructure for families to access the Internet in the county.

"I really hope that the affordable connectivity program is not one of those programs that gets cut off at the knees, and I'm really worried about it," he said. "The worst thing we could do is have all that infrastructure in place and then, at the most crucial time, cut it for our families."

Garrett pointed out the necessity of Internet access for finding and applying for jobs and for accessing telehealth.

"It makes health care more affordable," he said. "It makes health care more accessible, especially for the economically disadvantaged in the rural parts of our state."

©2024 the News & Record (Greensboro, N.C.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.