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Affordable Internet Program ‘On the Brink of Shutting Down’

Through the Federal Communications Commission, the Biden administration warned Congress Tuesday the Affordable Connectivity Program, which serves 760,000 Pennsylvania families, is within weeks of ending due to a lack of funding.

Broadband cables
(TNS) — The Biden administration warned Congress Tuesday that 23 million families, including more than 760,000 across Pennsylvania, could face Internet service disruptions within just a few weeks if a federal high-speed broadband assistance program receives no additional funding.

The Affordable Connectivity Program — which provides $30 monthly to help eligible households cover Internet costs and $75 to eligible families on tribal lands — "is on the brink of shutting down" next month, Jessica Rosenworcel, chair of the Federal Communications Commission, wrote in a letter to lawmakers.

President Joe Biden in October requested $6 billion to keep the program running through the rest of 2024. But the Biden administration says Republicans in Congress are holding up the funding, forcing families to face "hard choices about what expenses they have to cut, including food and gas, to maintain their broadband access, with some households doubtful they can afford to keep their broadband service at all," Ms. Rosenworcel wrote.

The program particularly helps veterans, seniors, Black and Latino communities, school-aged children and families in rural and tribal areas, White House officials told reporters in a press call Monday.

"Historically, the program has had bipartisan support," a senior administration official said. "Since October, we've seen a lot of interest from Democratic leaders in Congress, but we have not seen that interest from Republican leaders. Ultimately, we need both sides to come together on this and get it done for their constituents. Otherwise, it's not going to happen."

The White House released state-by-state data on the program as part of a pressure campaign to get Congress to approve the funding.

According to the White House, more than 81,000 households in the 12th and 17th Congressional districts that cover much of Allegheny County receive the benefit.

Statewide, almost one in seven Pennsylvania households — at least 763,742 families — are enrolled. Pennsylvania families save a combined total of $20.2 million each month on Internet bills through the program, according to the White House.

Congress initially approved $14 billion for the program as part of the bipartisan infrastructure bill in 2021, one of the legislative achievements Mr. Biden is touting during his re-election bid against the presumptive Republican nominee, former President Donald Trump.

GOP lawmakers in December expressed skepticism about the program, saying too many of its beneficiaries were already online before it began. They pressed the FCC to provide more accurate data on how many could lose broadband access without additional funding for the program.

"The Biden administration's reckless spending spree has left America's current fiscal situation in a state of crisis," they wrote.

Mr. Biden recently signed a $1.2 trillion funding package that averted a government shutdown but did not extend funding for the broadband program.

A bipartisan group of House and Senate lawmakers proposed a $7 billion bill for broadband assistance in January, but that legislation has gone nowhere.

"Since the Affordable Connectivity Program began, it has helped more than 29,800 of my constituents save up to $30 a month on their Internet bills," U.S. Rep. Chris Deluzio, D-Aspinwall, said last month. "However, the program will soon run out of funding unless Congress acts."

Mr. Deluzio and Rep. Summer Lee, D-Swissvale, cosponsored the $7 billion legislation to extend funding for the program. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Bucks, was the only Republican co-sponsor in the state.

Lance Grable, director of Beaver County's Office of Planning and Redevelopment, said in a statement last month that over the last three years, almost 9,000 low-income households in the county have subscribed to the program.

"Thanks to ACP-funded connectivity, these households can go to school online when needed, can access vital information about their health care and jobs, and get assistance with food and heating bills," he said. "The Internet connects them to essential government services and to information about what's going on in our county."

Last June, several Republican senators wrote to Mr. Biden urging him to divert unobligated pandemic relief funds to the program. They described it as "an important tool in our efforts to close the digital divide," but warned that projections showed the program could be "exhausted" by the end of the first quarter of 2024.

©2024 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.