Former FCC Commissioner: ACP should be extended but modified

Michael O'Rielly, former FCC Commissioner, defended the need for Congress to fund the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) but suggested limiting eligibility.

Nicole Ferraro, Editor, host of 'The Divide' podcast

June 5, 2023

5 Min Read
(Source: Pixabay)
(Source: Pixabay)

Former FCC Commissioner Michael O'Rielly on Monday, speaking on a panel hosted by Brookings, called the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) "the best mechanism we've had to date" for subsidizing low-income broadband. But he added that the current Congress is unlikely to pass funding for the ACP without changes to the program.

"There's different policymakers in charge," said O'Rielly, a self-described conservative Republican who was nominated to the FCC by President Obama in 2013. According to O'Rielly, Congress will want to address waste, fraud and abuse with the program, and likely limit its eligibility. By some estimates, up to 40% of Americans currently qualify for the program. "That's probably not suitable for policymakers that I talked to on Capitol Hill. It's just not in the cards," he said.

The ACP, which provides a monthly broadband subsidy of $30 ($75 for households on tribal land) for low-income households, plus a one-time device subsidy, was passed with bipartisan support in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) during the last Congress. But it's unclear if there's support to fund it again, with or without changes. Meanwhile, the program is projected to run out of funding sometime next year.

How soon that date arrives depends in part on the success of new grant programs launched by the FCC to fund local government and non-profit efforts to boost enrollment in the ACP. While there are currently over 18.5 million households enrolled, according to the latest available data, that's a fraction of the estimated eligible households. Industry stakeholders generally see the effort to extend the ACP's reach as far as possible as a positive thing, despite the fact that it will force the program to end faster without congressional action.

"I've lived through a number of different versions, both as a policymaker on Capitol Hill as congressional staff for 20 years, and then at the FCC overseeing a number of programs, and I support the ACP because I think it's the best structure we've had to date to get to where we want to go," said O'Rielly.

Congressional concerns

As O'Rielly indicated, Republicans in Congress will want to see changes to the ACP before allocating funding again. In a letter last month to the FCC Office of Inspector General, Senate Republicans inquired about a range of concerns with the program, including that it does not appear to be "targeting non-adopters" versus existing subscribers.

In a response, the OIG said it lacked data to answer that and other questions but is "currently conducting an audit to determine if the FCC developed effective program goals and performance measures to accurately report the performance results of the ACP."

Another open question is whether the FCC should remain the agency in charge of distributing the funds. "My thoughts are the FCC is not well suited for this," said O'Rielly on Monday.

While it's unclear if the ACP will regain bipartisan support in Congress, data shows broad constituent support for the program across party lines.

According to a map released by the Digital Progress Institute, the top five states for ACP enrollment are currently Louisiana (23%), Kentucky (20%), New Mexico (20%), Ohio (19%) and North Carolina (18%). The group also found that a "bipartisan majority" of voters – or 78% – support continuing the ACP, including 64% of Republicans, 70% of Independents and 95% of Democrats.

Broadband or bread?

On a separate Brookings panel on Monday, representatives from local governments and nonprofits spoke to the benefits of the ACP, and their concerns about the program sunsetting.

As panelists explained, by providing an additional revenue source, the ACP is allowing smaller, local ISPs and tribal networks to survive. "So sustainability is what ACP means," said Traci Morris, director of the American Indian Policy Institute (AIPI) at Arizona State University.

To that end, added Michael Collins, vice president of housing and financial capability at the National Urban League, losing the ACP will result in fewer sustainable providers and will reduce competition where it's most needed.

"If the money goes away, what we're doing is we're putting things back to where they were," he said. "Without the affordability programs, I think there's going to be a lack of competition and the rural areas will suffer the most."

Ultimately, without the ACP, the US may have to start unenrolling over 18 million households from a broadband subsidy program, potentially disconnecting them from the Internet just as the country starts spending over $40 billion through the Broadband, Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program to build new last-mile broadband networks.

For many families, that will result in a difficult financial decision. Naomi Jordan-Cook, member of Black Churches for Digital Equity – which was awarded a $600,000 grant to expand ACP outreach – described the stories she hears when she helps enroll families, many of whom are unaware of the benefit.

"I have people that will call back, or family members of those individuals saying, 'Thank you for signing up my cousin, she really needed this,'" she said. "They were trying to choose, 'should I buy milk? Should I buy bread? Or do I keep the Internet on so my children can do their homework?'"

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Nicole Ferraro, editor, Light Reading, and host of "The Divide" on the Light Reading Podcast.

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About the Author(s)

Nicole Ferraro

Editor, host of 'The Divide' podcast, Light Reading

Nicole covers broadband, policy and the digital divide. She hosts The Divide on the Light Reading Podcast and tracks broadband builds in The Buildout column. Some* call her the Broadband Broad (*nobody).

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