Free internet funding expected to run out in 2024 – what does this mean for you?

Camryn Smith

May 1, 2023 — 4 min read

The Affordable Connectivity Program provides free or cheap internet for millions in the United States, which has helped shrink the digital divide.

Adult and child watching a tablet.

The Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) provides a $30/mo. internet subsidy ($75 to those on qualifying Tribal lands) to over 17 million households in the U.S. Since most internet providers participate in the ACP and offer plans of $30/mo. or less, many of these households are getting their internet for free. 

The ACP was established in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) in 2021 which provides $65 billion in broadband funding. $14.25 billion of that funding was allocated to the ACP, but it’s expected to run out in early 2024.

What does this mean for the digital divide? 

The digital divide is not only defined as the gap between those who have internet and those who do not. It also involves the quality of that service and whether it’s affordable.

That’s where the ACP comes in. It gives many the opportunity to receive a quality internet connection through top providers like Xfinity, AT&T and Verizon when they could not afford it otherwise. 

If the government does not continue to fund the ACP – which is entirely possible considering the billions in funding already being allocated to other broadband programs – millions of people will be without internet once again, especially in underserved and unserved rural areas.

Cheap internet plans to keep you connected

Below is a list of cheap internet plans that can keep you connected even if you aren’t getting government assistance:

You can also call your ISP to see if they offer an in-house assistance plan like Internet Essentials from Xfinity or Access from AT&T. These programs were available before the ACP took effect and some are still available.

There are also other government plans like Lifeline to help you get funds to afford phone and internet connections. See our guide for more options.

An end to the ACP could affect other broadband funding programs

The National Urban League (NUL) points to a recent study that concluded that “the program reduces the subsidy needed to incentivize providers to build in rural areas by 25% per household.” 

It further explained that the ACP “reduces the per-household subsidy required to incentivize ISP investment by $500.” 

This means that the ACP leads to more investment from internet service providers (ISPs) to build out infrastructure in unserved or underserved areas.

There will be severe consequences in terms of tens of millions of Americans being disconnected or never having the opportunity to connect to the internet.

Marc H. Morial

If the ACP is discontinued or not replaced by another funding program, ISPs will have less incentive to invest in infrastructure build-outs leaving millions without internet access. 

In April 2023, several broadband groups and former FCC member Michael O’Rielly pushed Congress to allocate more money toward the ACP, arguing the program’s necessity for broadband equity.

Two-thirds of ACP-eligible households remain unenrolled in the program

While the ACP has been adopted by one-third of the nation, two-thirds of the eligible population remain unenrolled in the program. 

Of the 51.6 million ACP-eligible households, only 17.4 million are currently enrolled. This could be due to a difficult application process or people simply not knowing about the program. 

To combat the low-enrollment numbers, the FCC launched two programs focused on outreach and application assistance to ACP-eligible households. 

The Your Home, Your Internet Pilot Program is a year-long program focused on increasing awareness of the ACP.

The ACP Navigator Pilot Program is a year-long program focused on ACP application assistance. 

Federal programs provide billions in broadband funding 

Despite a possible ACP expiration date, there are other federal programs that provide funding for broadband infrastructure deployment. 

The BEAD program is one of the main broadband funding programs and was launched as part of the $65 billion IIJA. BEAD provides $42.45 billion state broadband grants to expand high-speed internet access across the U.S. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) hopes to have all of the funding allocated to eligible states by June 30, 2023. 

The FCC’s broadband maps are key for funding allocations

BEAD is focused on providing broadband funding to unserved and underserved locations across the U.S., and the FCC’s National Broadband Map is how these areas are identified.

Unfortunately, the FCC’s broadband maps have been historically inaccurate, which resulted in many areas not receiving the necessary funding.

The FCC released its new map in the Fall of 2022, but many errors have already been found. States have been submitting location and availability challenges in the hopes of having the mistakes rectified in time for funding allocations. New legislation aims to lengthen the window for states to challenge the maps. 

Other programs bridging the divide

ReConnect Loan and Grant Program

The ReConnect Program provides loans and grants to facilitate broadband deployment in rural areas. $1.6 billion has been allocated to the program’s third funding round. 

Emergency Connectivity Fund

The FCC’s Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF) helps give students the internet access needed to stay connected in an online schooling environment. $6.6 billion in funding has been approved to date and has provided support to over 10,000 schools. 

Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program

The Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program (TBCP) has allocated over $1.76 billion to connect 147 Tribal entities to date. In April 2023, the NTIA announced its most recent grant of over $5.8 million to 12 different Tribes. 

Capital Projects Fund

To date, 39 states have been approved to invest almost $6 billion of Capital Project Funds in high-speed internet. The most recent funding award went to Hawaii in April 2023 for $115.5 million. 

Wrapping up

The digital divide is far from closed, and obstacles like the ACP’s exhausted funding and incorrect FCC maps are only amplifying the challenges to connect the country. Federal programs continue to provide billions of dollars in loans and grants to expand access for rural areas, Tribal lands and schools, but only time will tell if this will be enough to bridge the digital divide. 

Camryn Smith

Written by:

Camryn Smith

Cammy is a writer with Allconnect, growing her broadband industry knowledge for over a year on the internet marketplace. Her expertise lies in home internet and broadband service with a focus on providers, plans… Read more

Robin Layton

Edited by:

Robin Layton

Editor, Broadband Content

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