A program that provides discounted broadband internet service to low-income households is expected to run out of funding by the end of April, a concerning development for school districts with families that relied on the subsidy.
With the Affordable Connectivity Program, eligible families can receive a discount of up to $30 per month toward internet service. For those on qualifying tribal lands, the discount is up to $75 per month. The program also provides a one-time discount to purchase a laptop, desktop computer, or tablet from participating providers.
Nearly 23 million households have enrolled in the program since it launched in 2021, according to the Federal Communications Commission, which runs the program. However, the agency stopped accepting new enrollments as of Feb. 8 and said it will disenroll all households from the program at the end of April, unless Congress provides additional funding.
Schools are increasingly relying on technology for teaching and learning, from learning management systems to multimedia curriculum to internet research. In some cases, schools are turning inclement weather days into remote learning days. So it’s even more imperative that students have sufficient internet connectivity and devices to access learning materials while at home.
‘It’s a huge equity problem’
Educators and advocates say the possible sunsetting of the Affordable Connectivity Program could worsen the so-called “homework gap”—a phrase used to describe the inequities between students who have digital devices and reliable internet connectivity at home, and those who don’t and struggle to complete online assignments as a result.
“My fear is that, with this funding running out, we’re going to have either more families not having access to those services, or more families having to go someplace with open Wi-Fi that maybe isn’t as secure as it should be,” said Chantell Manahan, the director of technology for Steuben County schools, a 2,600-student district in rural northeast Indiana. The program’s expiration could also mean more “families away from home, sitting in parking lots like they were during the pandemic, and that’s not a good place for our students and families to be.”
The expiration of the Affordable Connectivity Program doesn’t just affect students, but parents, too.
“Many schools rely on online communications platforms to communicate with parents and guardians about their student’s progress, school activities, and other important information. If families lose affordable internet access, this [communication] channel may be compromised,” said Julia Fallon, the executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association.
Sometimes, a school-issued device is the only one available to use at home, so parents also use it to look for jobs, do online coursework, or attend telehealth appointments, Manahan said.
“It’s not just a K-12 education problem. It’s a community problem. It’s a huge equity problem,” she added.
Will Congress provide more funding for ACP?
The Affordable Connectivity Program first launched as the Emergency Broadband Benefit, which was part of a pandemic relief package signed by former President Donald Trump in 2020. The next year, the program was codified as part of the bipartisan infrastructure law signed by President Joe Biden.
But the program has run through much of the initial $17.4 billion allocated by Congress, including $14.2 billion from the infrastructure law and $3.2 billion from its emergency predecessor.
In January, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a bill in the Senate and the House of Representatives that would provide $7 billion to keep the Affordable Connectivity Program operational.
It’s unclear how much traction the bill will receive, but several FCC commissioners and advocacy groups have applauded the bill and urged Congress to pass the measure.
Districts look for other solutions
In the meantime, district leaders are having tough conversations about how to provide adequate internet access to students and families who relied on the program.
In Steuben County, Manahan said the district might go back to solutions it used before the Affordable Connectivity Program, such as partnerships with local businesses and organizations that would let families come in and use their Wi-Fi for virtual learning.
The district has Wi-Fi hotspot devices it can lend to students, too, though Manahan is unsure how many of those devices the district can keep after funding runs out. The devices were originally funded through ESSER and the Emergency Connectivity Fund, both of which are also expiring this year.
Fortunately, Manahan said, the FCC’s E-rate funding will now cover putting Wi-Fi on school buses.
“It’ll be much more cost-effective for the district to be able to outfit all the buses,” she said. “We know there are some places where we might be able to park those buses and have internet access available.”
Along with school bus Wi-Fi, the district could also extend the reach of the Wi-Fi on school buildings so students, families, and staff can use it in the parking lot, she said.
“I can only hope that if we do see both ACP and ECF sunsetting that they’re going to divert those funds to other programs [that would provide] internet access into all our homes,” Manahan said. “In 2024, it’s not a luxury anymore. This is a necessity to participate in modern society.”