Broadband high-speed internet provides Americans with important benefits. From the ability to schedule a virtual doctor’s visit or file taxes online to the ability to participate in an online class discussion or speak with someone on the other side of the world, broadband has revolutionized the way people live their lives and participate in the digital economy. However, not everyone is fortunate enough to have access to broadband. Some Americans’ financial situations prohibit them from affording these important services. That’s why it’s critical that the federal government continue to fund the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), which provides disadvantaged Americans financial assistance for this very purpose.
Created in November 2021 as part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) and operated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the ACP works by providing eligible households a discount on home or mobile internet service. This discount is good for up to $30 per month, or up to $75 per month for households located on tribal lands. In addition, households may receive a one-time discount of up to $100 to purchase a desktop computer, laptop, tablet or other electronic device, so long as they contribute at least $10 and less than $50 toward the item.
Despite only existing for slightly over one year, the ACP has proven remarkably effective at providing millions of Americans with a connection online. According to the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC), over 16 million people have already enrolled in the program, at a cost of just $14 billion in appropriations. While still a significant sum, the amount of funding allocated to the program is fairly small compared to other programs included in the $1.2 trillion IIJA spending package. It also saves Americans an estimated $500 million every month on internet.
This important program has become the victim of its own success. Due to its enormous popularity, the ACP is in immediate danger of exhausting all funding by as early as next year. Should this occur, millions of Americans could lose access to the tremendous benefits broadband access has unlocked for them. These benefits impact nearly every facet of American life.
Broadband allows anyone access to an almost limitless amount of information online, constantly updated in real time. Individuals and families can use this information for a variety of purposes, ranging from locating the nearest grocery store or researching travel destinations to utilizing online grammar tools for a college paper. Broadband also allows users to quickly download and upload video content, access social media applications for online communication and utilize a wide selection of multimedia resources.
Broadband provides users with access to important online education resources that can be particularly helpful for families operating under financial constraints. The technology offers opportunities for remote learning, saving families time and money on transportation and other physical materials like backpacks, binders and textbooks associated with in-person learning. Other benefits include after-school access to tutors, speaker presentations and even virtual field trips. For each of these reasons, broadband has the potential to equalize opportunities for millions of disadvantaged families.
Research also suggests that broadband adoption is associated with “economic growth, higher income, and lower unemployment.” Broadband makes it easier for people to search for jobs and apply to them. No longer does an applicant have to visit a business to drop off a physical resume or rely on their social network to hear about new opportunities. They can simply go online and search for the job that most interests them or use a job-seeker website. A plethora of free online resources also exists to help people find jobs and help businesses recruit qualified employees.
Perhaps this is why studies have consistently found that broadband facilitates economic development. A 2021 report by the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) found that the internet economy “now accounts for 12 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP)” and is responsible for over 17 million jobs. A more recent report by Accenture noted that 5G networks are expected to “create up to 4.5 million jobs and generate $1.5 trillion in gross domestic product” for the economy by 2031.
Broadband shows significant promise for improving Americans’ health and wellness. The advent of telemedicine offers patients cost-effective medical services online at the click of a mouse. These include access to online health portals like MyChart, where a patient can review their medical history, submit prescription drug refill requests or even schedule a video appointment for a future date. These services are particularly helpful for Americans living with disabilities, such as those who are hard of hearing or have mobility issues, making attending in-person appointments difficult. These findings are consistent with other research on the subject that has found that internet access “significantly facilitates healthcare access and mitigates the negative impact of income inequality on healthcare access.”
Broadband has also been found to improve public safety by equipping government agencies like police, fire and rescue with the tools they need to respond quickly to disaster situations and medical emergencies. Americans can also more quickly call for help should the situation require it.
Other benefits include improvements in environmental sustainability and a reduction in the amount of greenhouse gas emissions released into the atmosphere. The rapid digitization of information has reduced the need for people and businesses to use physical materials that require lots of energy and resources to produce and usually end up in a landfill at the end of their life. Over time, physical materials like paper forms, books, and letters sent by snail mail have been replaced by online forms, e-books and messages sent via email or social media. This change cuts down on the amount of physical waste produced each year, both helping the environment and ultimately saving people time and money.
While the ACP remains just one small program among many different financial aid programs, it has proven to be one of the government’s more effective programs for delivering broadband benefits to a portion of the American public that frequently lacks access. The totality of benefits that it provides disadvantaged Americans is simply undeniable and more than outweighs any costs associated with continuing to administer it. Congress should move quickly to extend the ACP before funding runs out.