White House pushes for internet affordability funding as Arkansas ISPs plan for program's end

Fiber optics in blue, close up with ethernet and keyboard background, warm lens flare
Fiber optics in blue, close up with ethernet and keyboard background, warm lens flare

One in six Arkansas households stand to lose up to $30 a month as the federal Affordable Connectivity Program's funding runs out at the end of April.

While President Joe Biden is calling for money for the program, local internet service providers (ISPs) are making plans to let enrolled subscribers know that those savings are about to end.

The White House says 215,017 Arkansas households are now enrolled in the program, which began under President Donald Trump as a pandemic response in 2020. There are 59,514 in eastern Arkansas' first congressional district, 46,126 in Central Arkansas' second, 51,990 in Northwest Arkansas' third and 57,370 in the southwestern fourth. The state has received more than $122.08 million from the program, or about $6.4 million a month.

Biden is calling for Congress to approve $6 billion to keep the program funded through the end of the year, and blaming GOP legislators for its wind-down affecting 23 million Americans.

"In the 21st century, affordable, reliable high-speed internet is essential," said Biden's Senior Advisor Stephen K. Benjamin in a Monday call with reporters. "High-speed internet is necessary for Americans to participate in school, do their jobs, access health care and stay connected to loved ones, yet millions of Americans can't afford the cost of monthly internet connection, if they have connection to the internet at all.

"These disparities disproportionately impact communities of color, veterans and military families, rural communities and older Americans," he said, noting that around half of the program enrollees are military families and one-quarter are seniors.

Many -- but not all -- ISPs in Arkansas participated in the program, from large ones like AT&T and Comcast's Xfinity to South Central Connect, part of the South Central Arkansas Electric Cooperative in Arkadelphia, where 165 out of 7,747 subscribers are enrolled.

South Central Connect spread word about the program on its social media pages and to individual customers.

"It's a decent number," said manager Penny Kinder in an interview. "I feel like there probably will be some who will probably have to end up canceling their service, because that $30 is big for them."

The Federal Communications Commission began winding the program down earlier this year as it anticipated running out of money to fund it, which is now expected to happen this month. Congress did not appropriate more program funding when it passed legislation to keep the government open last month.

"While we were somewhat surprised that the Affordable Connectivity Program was not funded in the latest spending package recently approved by Congress, we have been preparing for this potential outcome for quite some time," Heath Simpson, chief executive officer of Ritter Communications in Jonesboro, said in a statement.

"As such, we expect the program's wind-down to have a minimal impact on the company," he said. "We have been in contact with customers enrolled in ACP to inform them of the wind-down of the program and are working with them to transition to the best rate plan for their household."

Households with net incomes below 200% of the federal poverty line were eligible to enroll in the Federal Communications Commission program.

"Affordable and reliable broadband is very important to Arkansans, especially in rural areas," Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman of Hot Springs said Monday via email in response to a request for comment. "I know a lot of my constituents have found the Affordable Connectivity Program valuable. I'm considering some legislative proposals that are in the works to reform and extend it."

In a statement to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette last week, Rep. Steve Womack, a Rogers Republican who serves on the House Appropriations Committee, stressed the need for "eligibility reforms" and efficient expenditure of taxpayers' dollars in additional funding. A senior Biden administration official said the White House is willing to work with Congress to keep the program operating.

"I have always been a strong supporter of smart and strategic efforts to bring internet access to rural America," said Republican Rep. Rick Crawford of Jonesboro in a statement. "Unfortunately, the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) has had numerous reports of fraud, which recently led to one service provider having to repay nearly $50 million to the government. ACP was created to target those who do not have reliable internet, but data continues to suggest that those enrolled in the program already had internet access.

"I cannot in good faith extend funding to this program without serious reforms that address these glaring flaws, but I remain willing to partner with the FCC on ensuring this program works as it was intended," Crawford said.

Another FCC program, Lifeline, may cover Affordable Connectivity Program enrollees with $9.25 off the cost of phone, internet or bundled services a month. Federal Pell grant recipients, free- or reduced-price lunch or school breakfast program enrollees and Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) recipients are eligible to enroll in addition to household income-eligible recipients.

Kinder said South Central Connect is letting subscribers enrolled in the Affordable Connectivity Program know through letters and over the phone that the program is ending and that Lifeline may allow some of them to keep their internet. "It's not nearly as much, but it may be just enough to keep them connected," she said.

"Honestly, I feel like it's something that should not go away," Kinder said. "More and more, you almost have to have internet access to survive. There's so many things that are geared towards the accessibility to go online, even to watch TV. It's going to be really hard for some people if they're not able to continue with it. It's going to put them at a disadvantage."

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