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Why 1.1 Million College Students Are Losing Their Internet Service

The Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), a federal subsidy providing discounted high-speed broadband internet service to more than 23 million low-income households and 60 million people across the United States, is set to run out of funds at the end of May 2024.

Although it seems difficult to believe that a subsidy supporting one in every six Americans and one in every five internet-connected households could ever end during an election year, Congress has not yet authorized funding to extend the program—and as of early June 2024, probably won’t.

How the Affordable Connectivity Program Serves Students

Designed to ensure that households can afford the broadband they need, this Federal Communications Commission benefit program was funded through the Biden Administration’s 2021 “Build Back Better” Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The ACP provides a $360 yearly discount toward high-speed broadband service for most of the program’s 52 million eligible households across America. The program also provides up to $75 per month for households in qualifying high-cost areas and on federal Tribal lands, plus a $100 one-time discount towards the purchase of a desktop, laptop, or tablet computer.

According to statistics compiled by the Universal Service Fund, this program currently serves at least 4.3 million students. These include about 1.1 million low-income college students supported by Pell Grants, and about 75 percent of traditional college-aged program enrollees aged 18 to 24 told one survey that the ACP enables them to do their schoolwork. In addition, the program also funds broadband service for 3.2 million families with at least one K-12 student who receives free or reduced-price school lunches.

Joana Partida, a graphic arts major concentrating in animation at California State University Los Angeles, is one of those students who wants to see the ACP continue. She told CSULA’s University Times, “I definitely feel like it should be extended because a lot of students depend on the internet, and those who can’t afford it go to libraries and other public places for access.”

Why Hasn’t Congress Extended the Affordable Connectivity Program?

Unfortunately, the $14.2 billion that Congress allocated to fund the ACP will run out at the end of May. Without a deal that extends funding, the FCC has already started to take steps to wind down the program; the agency has blocked new enrollments since February and cut May benefits in half to try to stretch the program while Congress deliberates. Moreover, there was no mention of the ACP in the 1,000-page fiscal year 2024 spending package approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee on March 23.

In April, Joe Kane, the director of broadband and spectrum policy at the Washington-based Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF), told Fierce Network that although bipartisan support on Capitol Hill still exists to keep the ACP operating, “it doesn’t seem to be a top priority for those with the power to move forward. At this point, we are likely too close to the end of funding to avoid a lapse in the program, even if Congress eventually revives it,” Kane said.

Earlier in 2024, with the backing of 400 interest groups and corporations, a broad bipartisan and bicameral coalition of senators and representatives introduced separate stopgap legislation known as the Affordable Connectivity Program Extension Act in both houses of Congress. If passed, that Act would provide an additional $7 billion to fund the ACP through early 2026, and it has a whopping 230 co-sponsors in the House.

However, New Street Research’s Blair Levin—a former leader at the FCC in charge of broadband policy—wrote in a recent note to investors that “while the extension legislation continues to gain congressional support, we have seen no signs that legislation will be brought to the floor on its own.” And the main reason why Congress has not acted on the ACPEA appears to be that an ardent coalition of Republican legislators led by Texas Senator Ted Cruz is aggressively fighting this extension measure on the grounds that it is a part of a “reckless spending spree.”

Senator Cruz mainly argues that the federal Lifeline internet subsidy program makes the ACP redundant. That argument seems curious, given that the Lifeline program generally offers subsidies of only about a third of the dollar value offered by the ACP, plus requires a far lower income threshold for which millions of less-poor ACP beneficiaries would never qualify.

Although the extension appears to have more than enough votes to pass in the House, Speaker Mike Johnson has refused to allow the measure to come to the floor for a vote. Observers suspect that Speaker Johnson’s reluctance partially stems from his fellow Republicans’ objectives to cut spending across the board within a gridlocked Congress and partially results from deference to the coalition led by Senator Cruz.

Representative Yvette Clarke, a Democrat from New York and one of the sponsors of the extension, went so far as taking the unusual step of filing a discharge petition on April 10. If approved, this petition would force the extension out of committee and into a floor vote, bypassing the Speaker’s authority. However, discharge petitions almost never succeed, with only two enacting successful legislation in the past 31 years. That said, Florida Republican representative Greg Steube actually applied this maneuver successfully on May 16 to force a House vote on his disaster relief bill.

After at least a 30-day waiting period, a majority of the House would need to vote in favor of Rep. Clarke’s petition, and that means that a minimum of five Republicans would need to cross over and vote with all 213 Democrats. It remains unclear how many of the 22 Republican co-sponsors would actually vote against Speaker Johnson in this instance, a move that could result in adverse political consequences for all of them later on. New Street Research reports that in Congress, breaking partisan ranks on procedural maneuvers like discharge petitions potentially carries higher political costs than breaking ranks on policy issues.

Could Other Legislative Maneuvers Save the ACP?

During a hearing on May 2, Senator Ben Ray Luján, the chair of the Senate’s Commerce Broadband Subcommittee, said that “it would be a significant waste of government funds to let this program lapse. It would mean letting all of the time and resources the federal government and our state and local partners have put into standing up the program and enrolling 23 million households go to waste.”

Yet, assuming that the extension probably has little chance of passage, are there any other legislative alternatives that might save the Affordable Connectivity Program?

Many legislative analysts, including Levin, believed that the best chance of saving the ACP occurred through an extension amendment attached by a group of senators to the Federal Aviation Administration’s “must-pass” reauthorization bill.

However, in a crushing defeat of the ACP’s advocates on May 9, at the last minute before passage, the Senate’s leadership decided to strip all amendments from the FAA’s bill. The New Republic’s Washington correspondent Grace Segers wrote on May 14 that when the reauthorization bill heads for its vote in the House, “it seems unlikely that there will be any ACP-related amendments attached to the legislation in the lower chamber.”

The next best option appears to be an ACP funding amendment to pending legislation already in committee. Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington, the Democrat who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee, filed just such an amendment to her bill that she calls the Spectrum and National Security Act. Her proposed legislation re-enables wireless frequency spectrum actions by the FCC.

The FCC lost its authority to conduct spectrum auctions for the first time in March 2023, and since then, the agency has failed to regain it. Senator Cantwell’s bill would restore that authority so that the agency could once again auction frequencies in the 12 gigahertz band between now and 2027, plus direct the agency to conduct feasibility studies for auctions in three other bands. By diverting a percentage of the auction proceeds paid by wireless telecom companies to fund the ACP, her bill would provide $7 billion to keep the ACP operating for about a year.

However, Senator Cantwell pulled the bill from consideration the night before a committee markup session scheduled for May 1. She said that “a bunch of amendments” would have taken too long to discuss and debate. Then, a rescheduled session planned for May 16 also had to be postponed because too many of the Democratic senators were absent due to scheduling conflicts. Cantwell explained to reporters that her bill would return to the agenda “at a future time,” but it remains unclear when she actually might introduce the bill during a committee hearing.

What Will Students Do Without the ACP?

If the ACP goes away, that will leave college and K-12 students supported by the program with far less effective alternatives. None of these options provides cost savings and download speed capabilities even remotely close to those provided through the ACP’s benefits.

Some of these students might live in households that qualify for other internet or universal service subsidies so long as their household income doesn’t exceed 135 percent of federal poverty guidelines, or about $20,000 for a person living alone in most states. By contrast, the ACP’s 200 percent threshold presents a lower qualification hurdle for those with higher incomes.

However, although the ACP funds $30 to $75 worth of service each month, the typical Lifeline internet discount program offered by telecommunications companies like AT&T only chips as little as $9.25 per month off a broadband bill. That monthly cost only buys up to 25 Mbps, or only about a fifth of the fast 150 Mbps speed funded by the ACP.

Fortunately, this analysis by two economists, Dr. Gregory Rosston at Stanford University and Dr. Bradley Wimmer of the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, argues that—despite what the tech and telecom industries want us all to believe—few Americans in 2024 actually need broadband speeds over 25 Mbps anyway:

Maintaining the equipment subsidy, reducing the subsidy from $30 to as low as $10, and allowing ACP participants to select low-priced service plans with 25 or 50 Mbps would keep most ACP households connected to the internet.

While some will argue that the ACP should only subsidize services that provide at least 100 Mbps, there is no evidence that services that provide 25 or 50 Mbps prevent households from participating in a digital society. Most of the things we do on the internet do not require much more than a total of about 15 Mbps, even for a family of four. Online services needed to work and learn from home, search for jobs, use government services, consume basic telehealth services, and perform other essential online functions require fewer than 25 Mbps. Zoom calls require only about two Mbps, and streaming high-definition Netflix shows require five Mbps.

Congress can keep broadband affordable and save the government money by adjusting and extending the ACP.

Douglas Mark

While a partner in a San Francisco marketing and design firm, for over 20 years Douglas Mark wrote online and print content for the world’s biggest brands, including United Airlines, Union Bank, Ziff Davis, Sebastiani and AT&T.

Since his first magazine article appeared in MacUser in 1995, he’s also written on finance and graduate business education in addition to mobile online devices, apps, and technology. He graduated in the top 1 percent of his class with a business administration degree from the University of Illinois and studied computer science at Stanford University.