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Millions could lose affordable access to internet service with FCC program set to run out of funds

Walter Prescher, a father with 10 children living at home, says internet access is essential to keep his household running smoothly.  

"With all the kids and all the chaos in the family, that [money] could go towards doing other activities for the kids," Prescher told CBS News.

He and his family live in College Station, Texas. The Iraq war veteran qualified for the Affordable Connectivity Program under his status as a disabled veteran. His family receives a $30 monthly benefit for internet service under the program run by the FCC. Prescher also helps others get connected to the program through his work as a digital navigator for the Easter Seals of Greater Houston, a nonprofit dedicated to enhancing the lives of individuals with disabilities and special needs.

Prescher says he and his family will "move around" things to make up the $30 shortfall if the program goes away later this year without additional funding from Congress, but he worries that it may be more difficult for millions of other families to juggle. He often travels to rural parts of Texas in 16 different counties working to get people connected to the internet and devices that can enhance their lives.

"For some of the clients I work with, losing this benefit is going to be catastrophic," Prescher told CBS News. "Internet in a lot of these communities is extremely cost-prohibitive. A lot of times they're looking at $100+ a month for what in a more urban or suburban area would cost $50 a month just because they're so remote."

In 2021, the nonprofit EveryoneOn, which helps underserved communities gain internet access, found that among households making $50,000 or less annually, 18% lost their access during the coronavirus pandemic "because of difficulty paying their internet bills." Among lower-income and poorer middle-income households, EveryoneOn found that 40% said they couldn't afford to pay anything for high-speed internet subscriptions, and 22% felt they could comfortably pay $25 per month. 

The FCC says that it's difficult to predict how many will lose their connectivity without the benefit, "as well as how many of the 1,700 service providers may choose to cut off households that are no longer in the program." But it suspects "the likely number will be in the millions, given the growing demand of the program." 

In a letter sent to congressional appropriators and first shared with CBS News, FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel urged Congress to provide $6 billion dollars in funding that the Biden administration has requested in order to continue running the Affordable Connectivity Program for the rest of the year. The FCC has nearly depleted just over $14 billion in funding for the program, which was appropriated through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in 2021. Rosenworcel says without additional funds, the FCC will need to begin taking steps this week to wind down the program to give providers, stakeholders and households time to prepare. Nearly 23 million households could be affected by the end of the program, with funding expected to run out in May.

"If Congress does not provide additional funding for the ACP in the near future, millions of households will lose the ACP benefit that they use to afford internet service," Chairwoman Rosenworcel said in the letter.  "This also means that roughly 1,700 internet service providers will be affected by the termination of the ACP and may cut off service to households no longer supported by the program."

The ACP enables those who qualify to receive a $30 per month stipend for internet service. Households must meet certain income requirements or currently receive government benefits such as SNAP, Medicaid or veterans' pensions to qualify. Households on tribal lands could receive up to $75 per month. The benefit is paid directly to internet providers.

The program has previously received bipartisan support from both the Senate and the House, as well as governors of several states. In a letter addressed to congressional leaders last November, 26 governors emphasized the importance of the program as the Biden administration began to roll out over $40 billion in funding to expand broadband internet access across the country. "It is essential that people do not lose access to the internet that this vital program has allowed them to gain," the letter read.

Some lawmakers have expressed concern over potential waste and misuse of the benefit, citing a Government Accountability Office report released in January that said the FCC program lacked an anti-fraud strategy. The GAO reports that the agency has since taken steps to mitigate fraud. 

An FCC official also noted the FCC's recovery of nearly $50 million in ACP funds that were voluntarily paid back from an internet provider that had improperly claimed funds between June 2021 and July 2022.

Despite challenges like these, cutting or ending the ACP would be devastating for millions who depend on it, Prescher argues.

"The economic and educational impact moving forward of cutting this program and [leaving] the families that are on it is more than I think our country can handle long-term," Prescher said.

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