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'No good options': Popular internet subsidy used by many Nevadans may disappear

Enacted in 2021, the $30-per-month federal benefit expiring in April has been a key way to keep bills low as broadband infrastructure is expanded.
Gabby Birenbaum
Gabby Birenbaum

Mariluz Garcia sees the impact of the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) every month.

Garcia, a Washoe County commissioner representing a working-class district that includes downtown Reno, says the federal initiative that reduces or even negates some low-income households’ internet bills has helped her constituents do everything from look for work online to boost their use of telehealth services.

“It's been huge for these households, because many of them are seniors on fixed income, many of them are working-class families with children,” she said. “It's been very evident how important this program has been for folks.” 

In Nevada, more than 276,000 households are enrolled in the ACP program — about a quarter of the state. Residents have cumulatively saved more than $136 million on their internet bills through early February, and Clark County had more residents subscribed than all but 11 counties in the nation through the end of 2023.

But now, those digital gains are imperiled by a familiar obstacle: congressional inaction. Funding for the ACP is expected to run out in May, causing the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to begin winding down the program; it stopped taking new applicants in early February. If Congress does not act to renew the program’s funding, hundreds of thousands of Nevadans could see their Internet bills increase or their service cut.

“It’s unfortunate that with the winding down of this program, my constituents are having to face difficult decisions on what to cut, because they just cannot afford the increased expenses of living,” Garcia, a Democrat, said.

Created in 2021 through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the program provides eligible, low-income households a deduction of up to $30 on their monthly internet bills, bringing some bills down to $0. On tribal land, that benefit is up to $75 per month. The FCC sends the money directly to internet service providers.

Households are also eligible for a one-time, $100 discount on a computer or tablet through a participating provider, provided that the household is still contributing between $10 and $50 toward the cost of the device. 

Qualifying households are either at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty guideline — $31,200 for a four-person household in 2024 — or receive assistance from government assistance programs such as SNAP, WIC, Medicaid, SSI, free or reduced school lunch or a Pell Grant.

In Nevada, uptake is particularly prominent in the state’s urban areas. In certain ZIP codes, such as 89101 in East Las Vegas and 89512 in Reno, 100 percent of eligible households are enrolled.

Brian Mitchell, the director of the Nevada Broadband Office, said he hears from participants that the ACP has allowed them to do everything from work from home to stream Netflix.

Mitchell is worried about what will happen if funding expires.

“For folks on fixed income, when the choice was between putting food on the table or paying the rent or transitioning to paying $30 a month for internet, folks [said they] just didn't have the room in their budget to do that,” he said.

Digital equity strategy

Both the Biden administration and the state of Nevada are undertaking massive expansions of broadband with the hope of achieving digital equity — providing affordability as they expand access. 

The access piece has major federal investment. The state is receiving $416 million to build out broadband infrastructure — hundreds of millions more are obligated through the American Rescue Plan and other recent federal spending programs for network construction and upgrades.

But connecting the state means little if Nevadans cannot afford the internet. And the ACP is a major factor in the state’s affordability planning — the ACP is mentioned 47 times in the state’s 2023 digital equity plan.

“If we build a lot of infrastructure in unserved and underserved areas, and then folks can't afford the service, or providers have to set the rate so low that they can't afford to maintain the networks, then a lot of that infrastructure building will be to a lesser effect than it would have otherwise been,” Mitchell said.

Congressional prospects

The ACP is broadly popular among members of both parties — a bipartisan coalition of 26 governors, including Gov. Joe Lombardo (R), sent a letter to congressional leaders in November urging them to provide additional funding.

The Biden administration has called on Congress to renew funding for the program as well, and think tanks and local officials alike have been raising the alarm about how the end of ACP would undermine recent gains in digital equity.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law was supported by Nevada’s five congressional Democrats. Rep. Mark Amodei (R-NV) voted against it.

Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV), who sits on the Senate Commerce Committee and helped author the broadband section of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, has been a champion of the ACP, co-sponsoring a bill with Sen. Peter Welch (D-VT) to provide $7 billion in new ACP funding. In a promising sign for its potential, it has two Republican co-sponsors.

Leaving a potential renewal until the eleventh hour has historically been Congress’ modus operandi, with imminent deadlines often the only factor able to spur lawmakers. 

“I'm actually hopeful that sometime in April, when the money is officially dry, that this will get tucked into some must-pass bill and funding will get extended through the end of the calendar year or longer,” Mitchell said.

Even so, a bipartisan desire to see the ACP extended is bumping up against a historically inactive Congress poised to become even more paralyzed this election year.

Regardless, Garcia said she’s concerned that Nevadans might not know that the program is imperiled. She said in her meetings with Nevada’s federal representatives, they encouraged concerned residents to reach out to their offices, and that doing so helps build popular support in Congress.

Customers losing their ACP benefit may be eligible for another FCC program: Lifeline. Nevada households whose income is below 135 percent of the Federal Poverty Guidelines or who include a participant in a federal assistance program such as SNAP are eligible for the benefit, which is smaller than what the ACP provided. Lifeline beneficiaries can receive up to $9.25 off of their monthly internet bills; for customers on tribal lands, this increases to $34.25.

The FCC is currently requiring providers to send notices to customers receiving ACP funding that their benefit could expire, and asking them whether they want to opt in to a new plan where they are responsible for payment — so that no one receives a surprise bill. Those who do not opt in will see their service discontinued. 

Mitchell said based on his conversations with providers, he expects many will continue to offer ACP-level rates for customers rather than lose them. But he acknowledged that if the federal funds dry up, the state is unlikely to backfill the $100 million gap.

“We'll continue to work on this and adapt and figure out other strategies, but for right now … there are no good options,” he said.


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