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ACP's Eleventh Hour

Folks in the extended Maine broadband community are likely familiar with the Affordable Connectivity Program or ACP - whether through nominal recognition, first-hand experience getting signed up, or offering a helping hand in the enrollment process to fellow community members. The Affordable Connectivity Program is a federally funded subsidy that goes towards making internet connections more affordable for low-income and tribal families across the country. By far the most successful program we’ve seen at addressing the digital divide at the household level and a sterling example of bipartisan/nonpartisan policymaking that truly lifts all boats, the ACP is on track to run out of funding by April - at the latest. As of today, February 8th, the FCC has frozen new enrollments.

Over 22 million households in America participate in this program, and 97,186 of an eligible 238,710 households in Maine are currently enrolled. These households are in every community across the state and represent every type of Mainer - old and young, veterans, new Mainers, those on fixed incomes, the list goes on. According to national polling released on January 8th, the ACP enjoys overwhelming support from voters across the ideological spectrum - Republicans, Democrats, and Independents alike. There is not one segment of the population that doesn’t support the ACP to a tune of less than a twenty point margin. Another national poll of ACP enrollees released recently asked about the impact of the ACP being allowed to go fallow and the responses paint a somber picture: 65% of ACP Participants fear losing their job or their household’s primary source of income, 75% of ACP Participants fear losing access to important healthcare services, like online appointments or prescription medicine refills, and 81% of ACP parents worry about their children falling behind in school. 

These fears are the hallmark problems caused by the digital divide - a term that tries to capture the discrepancies between those with the knowledge, access and means to use the internet from those without.

With that as a baseline, a whole set of high-level questions arise around what exactly closing the digital divide means to those whose stated goal is to do so. As Mia Purcell from Community Concepts summed up on a call organized by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA), “all of this work that has been - is being - done over the years is to narrow the digital divide. This [not renewing the ACP] expands the digital divide”. And she’s right, at least for the foreseeable future.

State and Federal governments are working hard to fund infrastructure builds bringing high-speed connectivity to all homes who want it. These programs have limited price setting ability for products offered to the consumer because the internet has not been deemed a regulated utility service at this time. ACP helps ensure that customers can afford to use this new infrastructure currently being funded and built across the country.  

Crafted by the National Telecommunications and Information Agency (NTIA), the Broadband Equity Access and Deployment Program (BEAD) set aside $272 million for the Maine Connectivity Authority (MCA) to administer grants to ISPs for building broadband infrastructure in the unserved parts of the state. MCA has worked hard at building affordability criteria into all of its grant programs, and the BEAD program specifically etches affordability into its requirements. Emphasizing affordability as a contingency to public dollars being spent on infrastructure is critical and should be applauded - but is it enough to tackle the affordability problem writ large? Can those requirements supplant the need for a subsidy like the ACP?

For the time being, no. For one, there’s a timeline problem - projects awarded with BEAD grants won’t come online for the consumer until 2025 at the earliest. In the meantime, ACP enrollees will be disconnected both literally and figuratively as they are forced to reallocate their resources in a time when the cost of everything is rising. These affordability requirements are also only applicable to where BEAD dollars are awarded and will not be available to households outside the footprints of those networks. While, yes, $30/month plans will be available to locations that are reached with BEAD, those may be the only locations in the state where that offering is available and even still those rates won’t be around forever. Some ISPs - mostly smaller and Maine-based - are reconfiguring their offerings to align with the affordability standards set by MCA and BEAD regardless. Their commitment to doing right by the communities they serve is admirable and an example of what good partners in the private sector look like, as the same cannot be said for some of the larger companies whose priorities are to shareholders above all else. 

If you joined us at the 2023 Maine Broadband Summit and heard Evan Feinman, Director of the BEAD program at NTIA, speak, he made a point about the moral imperative that undergirds the work being done at all levels of the broadband ecosystem - to connect the unconnected today is a shared responsibility that we have to one another. Kerem Durdag, CEO of GWI, echoed that sentiment at the NDIA press conference when he said that “what we have is a societal responsibility. We believe (access to) the internet is a human right”. Whether or not a subsidy like the ACP should exist in perpetuity is a fair conversation to have and one likely debated in a larger political context - but the reality is that, for the here and now, the ACP is needed.  

Congress’ inability to act on renewing ACP funding is as frustrating as it is disheartening and reads as a dismissal of not only those who rely on the program but those who care deeply about working towards closing the digital divide. Failing to make access affordable blunts the impact of BEAD and every other preceding public dollar spent on broadband infrastructure improvement and expansion – and worse, it jeopardizes the shared vision in which every household has equitable access to a critical resource in an increasingly digital world.

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I suggest removing the money going to the corrupt country Ukraine to fully fund more BEAD projects helping our citizens instead

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