Jun 28, 2023
OPINIONS: Internet access for many may be at risk
by Kim Lindlof
President, CEO Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce
In response to our nation’s increased reliance on high-speed Internet, both the Trump and Biden Administrations have taken important steps to provide connectivity to those that need it, particularly in rural areas. An invaluable program that’s been created in recent years to enable this is the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), which over 18 million American households are currently enrolled in. The ACP enables eligible Americans to overcome the obstacle of affordability by providing a monthly voucher which can be used on the cost of an Internet subscription. When combined with the low-income offerings made available by many of the nation’s leading providers that participate in the program, the voucher can make the cost of a subscription free for qualifying low-income families. Here in Maine, over 82,000 households are enrolled in the ACP, while another 150,000 are eligible to enroll.
Unfortunately, the ACP faces an existential threat that could eliminate Internet access for the over 18 million American households that rely on the program – its funding will run out sometime in 2024. Extending its funding to ensure that the program continues to exist should be an urgent priority for lawmakers regardless of partisanship.
A CNBC poll earlier this year found that the significant majority of Republicans and Independents support the program, and its expiration would be a blow to constituencies of both parties, as data from the Technology Policy Institute reflects that enrollment is essentially equivalent for both Republican-represented and Democratic-represented Congressional districts.
Politics aside, an end to the ACP would set us back years in our effort to overcome the affordability gap, a barrier that accounts for two-thirds of our nation’s digital divide. By not having an effective solution in place to assist Americans struggling to afford an Internet subscription due to level of income, we will more or less be fighting this fight with one arm tied behind our back. In Maine, 39 percent of households with income less than $20,000 have no connectivity. Closing the digital divide is an effort that we must be successful in, as analyses of the issue have indicated that allowing millions of Americans to continue to be without connectivity will have grave repercussions for the American economy at large. A 2021 study from Deloitte found that a ten percentage-point increase in broadband penetration in 2016 would have created more than 806,000 additional jobs in 2019.
The persistence of the digital divide will continue to mean untapped prosperity for the American economy, and it’s not hard to understand why. Seemingly every industry stands to benefit by having access to high-speed Internet and all of the essential resources that come with it. This means not only capabilities for remote working, but also access to information, so those working in sectors that are more hands-on and less computer-intensive can still utilize the Internet to yield better results. An example of this could be a farmer in Clinton that relies on online resources for market prices, weather forecasts, farming techniques, and agricultural research, or a small business owner in Waterville that utilizes online platforms to advertise its product and grow its brand.
Overall, I am hopeful that federal policymakers understand that combatting affordability barriers is an integral part of getting Americans online, but I also hope that this understanding will translate into tangible action that specifically acknowledges the need to prolong the Affordable Connectivity Program. With the program set to expire next year, we need to find a funding solution in the near future that keeps this critical program intact.