Millions of Americans stand to lose their subsidized home internet connection this year

The Affordable Connectivity Program, introduced early in the pandemic, is set to sunset amid congressional deadlock, affecting users, workers, and companies.
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Ariana Drehsler

· 8 min read

When Dorothy Burrell’s lupus flares, she has days when she can’t walk or get out of bed, much less work outside of her Kansas City home. On those days, her home internet connection is a lifeline.

“It’s like my life. I depend on it; I need it,” Burrell said.

But the 54-year-old Missouri resident couldn’t afford home internet until 2022, when her pastor told her about the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP).

After a local nonprofit helped her sign up and provided her with a Chromebook, Burrell used her connection not only to search for work-from-home jobs but also to attend virtual doctor’s appointments, order medication and groceries to her door, and stay active with chair exercise routines she found on YouTube.

Her job search ended recently when she found work as a digital navigator with Essential Families, the nonprofit that first helped Burrell obtain internet service.

Because of the broad nature of the work Essential Families conducts, the nonprofit said Burrell’s job will remain secure even if the ACP sunsets. But thousands of other community workers stand to lose both their internet connections and a chunk of their livelihoods once the ACP shuts down. The pandemic-era initiative aimed at getting more Americans online has so far connected 23 million households, but it’s slated to run out of money by the beginning of May.

Two images side-by-side. One of a art piece with text displaying "I am blessed" and the other image of a wireless router on a stand next to plant

Images from inside Dorothy Burrell's home. She obtained subsidized internet service for her Kansas City home in 2022. Emily Curiel for Morning Brew

With no clear path for Congress to renew program funding, ACP recipients like Burrell are forced to grapple with what losing connectivity will mean.

“I’ll be depressed,” she told Tech Brew before she secured a job that allows her to afford home internet. “Some of us, like myself, feel hopeless.”

“Not really an option”

Since early 2022, the ACP has offered monthly discounts of up to $30 per household toward an internet service of a participant’s choosing (and up to $75 per month for tribal residents, where infrastructure is sparser and service more expensive). Unlike other digital safety-net programs that provide a lower tier of service and impose more stringent eligibility requirements, roughly 46 million households—that’s one-third of the country—could qualify for the program.

Among them are some of the country’s most vulnerable: the unhoused, the elderly, the un- and underemployed, and low-income parents and students.

The subsidy has led many carriers to roll out tailored offerings that make the service effectively free to end users. The program also offers participants discounts on digital devices like computers and tablets, to help defray the cost.

The ACP has managed to reach a swath of the population that both desperately needed internet access and had never had it. Nearly half of ACP users surveyed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in December said they only had mobile service or lacked connectivity entirely before the program.

A majority of program participants who responded to the survey said that without the ACP subsidy, they either wouldn’t be able to afford their current internet plan or would need to change it. Others, like 33-year-old Brandee McGee, can’t afford to do without.

The University of San Diego School of Law student told Tech Brew that she’ll slash other areas of her budget before she cuts the cable. This is out of necessity: She has handled sensitive information as part of her internships, so hanging out in a public place like a library or a coffee shop with free wi-fi isn’t feasible.

After her mother received a cancer diagnosis in 2021, spending extended periods of time in public is also not an option for McGee, who tries to limit her own exposure to crowds to protect her mom from Covid and other illnesses.

“It’s just one of those things where it’s as important to me as my food and my rent,” McGee said of home internet. Going without it is “not really an option anymore,” she said.

A side-by-side of two photos: one of a closeup on a woman's hands working on a laptop and the other showing people sitting and standing around a table in a hallway

Students provide information on the Affordable Connectivity Program and other government initiatives at the University of San Diego School of Law. (Ariana Drehsler for Morning Brew)

McGee’s perspective isn’t uncommon.

“Particularly since the pandemic, it’s been clear that people see the internet as essential to their lives as water and electricity. They view it as a utility,” tech policy advocate Gigi Sohn, executive director of the American Association for Public Broadband, told Tech Brew. “Prior to the ACP, people were having to make a decision between food or clothes and internet access…it is a choice that low-income families make. I hear it all the time. It’s very common.”

Hidden costs

While the push to renew the ACP has garnered bipartisan support, some Republican lawmakers have balked at the $7 billion price tag needed to keep the program alive until the end of the year—a push that seems ultimately dead on arrival after the House approved a spending package last month that didn’t include ACP funding.

But advocates cite the potential ripple effects across the healthcare and education systems, broadband infrastructure, and the economy if the program is allowed to collapse.

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Nearly 75% of the ACP subscribers who participated in the FCC survey said they have used their internet service to book or attend virtual healthcare appointments, 48% said they’d applied for jobs or worked online, and three-fourths of young people ages 18–24 reported using the internet to complete schoolwork.

For Debra Atwood, 60, gaining home internet access opened a new way to earn money. She first learned about the ACP a few months ago through her senior center in Grayslake, Illinois, where she attended an informational session at her complex and received a laptop and guidance on how to use it.

“I brought it upstairs, and I just haven’t been without it since,” she said.

Atwood had used a computer at previous jobs and was an avid social media user on her phone, but she’d never had home internet or her own laptop. The effects were almost immediately life-changing. Atwood began selling her hand-crocheted hats and purses through social media and a website she built.

“Without the internet, how could I do something like this? I am not going to stand on the street corner. I am not going to post up with a table outside. I’m too old for that,” she said.

Workforce impacts

Aside from the millions of households that stand to lose their internet access, a smaller group of digital navigators is also poised to lose a path to income.

Like Burrell in Kansas City, many of these individuals initially begin working with digital inclusion nonprofits when they gain subsidized internet access through them. But under a nonprofit employment model piloted in the early days of the pandemic, some individuals also become paid peer guides to the digital ecosystem.

At the ACP’s inception, Congress authorized the FCC to oversee the distribution of outreach grants intended to recognize “the importance of effective outreach to eligible households from trusted messengers to historically underserved communities.”

Jordan Axt, senior director of marketing for the National Lifeline Association, estimates that at least 20,000 people across the country work as representatives who help enroll people in connectivity programs including the ACP. Axt said that these agents can work from places like Walmart parking lots, transitional housing, Medicaid enrollment office parking lots, or anywhere else eligible participants might frequent.

“There’s not a shortage of people in need, and it’s not hard to find them,” Axt said.

For organizations trying to plan their budgets, the uncertain future of the ACP could have direct impacts on the bottom lines of nonprofits and private companies alike. Axt told Tech Brew that of the roughly 1,700 ACP internet service providers, a majority of them solely exist to provide service to ACP enrollees. The FCC did not respond to a request for comment on the number of ACP-only providers.

Natali Betancur, deputy director of the Center for Digital Equity at Queens University of Charlotte, said her organization hired five part-time digital navigators in August 2023, including a social work graduate student and a teacher looking to make a career pivot. They informed the new hires, some of whom eventually hoped to gain full-time employment, that the positions were funded at least through May 2024.

But as the ACP coffers emptied in early 2024 with no plan to refill them on the horizon, Betancur said the organization had to begin weighing what to do.

“All of a sudden, we had to tell five individuals that their part-time jobs that we have relied on, that they were counting on until May, were no longer available,” Betancur said.

Ultimately, the Center for Digital Equity found money in other parts of its budget to pay the part-time employees through May, but Betancur recognizes this is a privilege.

“We chose to do that. But not every organization has the opportunity to do that,” she said.

Image of two women, one of whom is holding a laptop.

Dorothy Burrell (right) purchases her internet at discount through the Affordable Connectivity Program. The 54-year-old Missouri resident recently found online work with Essential Families, a nonprofit founded by Terri English-Yancy (left). (Emily Curiel for Morning Brew)

In the meantime, Burrell is just getting started with her work as a navigator in Kansas City. After she completes a three-day training course, she can help staff Essential Families community outreach events at libraries, senior centers, and healthcare facilities. She’ll also take on clients, guiding them through the process of signing up for and using the internet.

According to Kenneth Yancy, chief of digital marketing and software development at Essential Families, the organization has helped 300 households get connected through the ACP. Still, he said, it has a waitlist of around 1,200 people waiting for connectivity help—most of whom are eligible for ACP assistance.

“We want it to stay, because they’re thinking they’re gonna get it,” Yancy said of the program. “We’re telling them: ‘We don’t know.’”

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