In August 2020, during the heart of the covid-19 pandemic when many schools were closed, social media and news outlets were awash with a picture of two grade school students sitting outside of a Taco Bell, attempting to do their schoolwork. That one picture changed millions of minds about the necessity for everyone in the US, regardless of economic status or geographic location, to have an affordable broadband Internet connection.  

It would not be hyperbole to say that this one photo was one of the motivating factors behind Congress including $14.2 billion for the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) in the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. The ACP currently provides over 23 million low-income households $30 each month to better afford broadband service (families on tribal lands and very rural areas receive $75 monthly). The number of households participating in the ACP is even greater than those participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). 

Unfortunately, unless Congress acts very quickly, low-income Americans may again be forced to sit outside of fast-food restaurants to get internet access. 

Support for the ACP is broad and diverse, spanning governors, mayors, state legislators, and members of Congress across the political spectrum. The creation of the ACP, along with other programs to fund broadband deployment across the US, was a firm recognition that universal and affordable connectivity is vital to a healthy society and economy.

Despite its popularity, the ACP will run out of money by the end of April unless Congress appropriates billions in additional funds. There is a bipartisan push to extend the program, but time is running out, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the agency that oversees the ACP, has already issued guidance to broadband providers on how to wind down the ACP and notify recipients that they will likely lose their internet service. 

The intense but so far unsuccessful effort over the past year by a wide swath of stakeholders — including civil society, federal and local officials and broadband providers — to secure funding for the ACP is clear evidence of why the congressional appropriations process is ill-suited for funding important telecommunications priorities, like universal access to affordable broadband.

Fortunately, there is a better alternative. 

Congress empowered the FCC to take on the important work of ensuring “all people of the United States” have access to an evolving level of communications services. That goal, termed “universal service,” is primarily pursued through the Universal Service Fund (USF), which Congress created as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The USF is financed by a fee imposed on certain revenues for traditional telephone services. Consumers who purchase such services typically see a line item on their bill for a “universal service fee.” As Congress envisioned, the USF has advanced from supporting one essential communications network, telephone service, to supporting the essential communications network of our time, broadband internet.

Every single state and territory has greater connectivity as a result of the USF.  

The approximately $8 billion the USF spends annually to help close the digital divide has funded connectivity to rural, tribal, and remote areas that were deemed “uneconomic to serve.” It has provided access for schoolchildren and library patrons, many of whom would not otherwise be able to afford access and thus would have been left behind in this digital economy. It has provided connectivity for rural health clinics, helping ensure that telehealth can be delivered to people where they live instead of forcing them to drive hundreds of miles or go without care. And it has helped millions of low-income households get and stay connected to wired and mobile networks. Every single state and territory has greater connectivity as a result of the USF.  

These important missions remain vital because the work is not done. The Universal Service Fund must be reenvisioned to address today’s needs, including ensuring that there is a permanent funding mechanism for the ACP’s subsidy for low-income households. The Communications Act gives the FCC the power to modernize and expand how the USF is financed. As mentioned previously, only telephone companies, through their customers, currently pay fees into the USF. As more and more companies cease providing telephone services, they stop contributing, which increases the burden on a handful of companies and consumers. This is not sustainable. 

To prevent the USF from collapsing and to save the broadband subsidy, the FCC should, without delay, start a proceeding to sustain and expand the USF through contributions by additional communications networks. It almost goes without saying that broadband companies should contribute to the fund, although others have urged that Congress should give the FCC the power to consider applying the fees to other companies that use communications networks, like cloud services or online companies like Google and Meta. Once the base of companies contributing to the USF is expanded, the FCC can replicate or even improve upon the subsidy that Congress provided in the ACP. 

The FCC must modernize the Universal Service Fund regardless of whether Congress extends the ACP. The funding levels proposed in Congress and by the White House would only provide enough support for a year at most, and if the process we are going through now to get this extension is any indication, seeking funding beyond this year will be much, much harder. 

When it passed the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Congress allocated $65 billion in funding for broadband deployment, affordability, and adoption. The text of the bill also intentionally paved the way toward modernization of the USF, explicitly inviting the FCC to make recommendations to Congress for the expansion of the fund. Unfortunately, the agency largely punted, discussing a variety of options but going no further. 

We are facing another “kids doing school work in front of a Taco Bell so they can use the Wi-Fi” moment, where over 23 million US households are in danger of losing affordable connectivity. The FCC has an opportunity and the power to save the program it stood up and nurtured. It should do so with urgency.

Gigi Sohn is one of the nation’s leading public advocates for open, affordable, and democratic communications networks. She serves on the Board of the Affordable Broadband Campaign, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ensuring that everyone in the US can benefit from what broadband internet access enables. 

Greg Guice has over two decades of experience working on federal efforts to close the digital divide in rural and tribal communities and for low-income families across the country. He serves as board chair of the Affordable Broadband Campaign and is also chief policy officer at the Vernonburg Group.


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