FCC's Rosenworcel spars with senators over ACP's value

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel came to the Affordable Connectivity Program's defense after a handful of senators questioned the value of the program. The exchange came amid debate over whether the broadband subsidy program - which is expected to run out of funding in April - should receive an infusion of cash to extend its operation.

In a letter to Rosenworcel, the senators argued that too many of the program's dollars have gone to households that already had broadband prior to the subsidy. They cited data from the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC) that indicated only "20 or 22%" of ACP recipients lacked broadband before the program. They also highlighted a disparity between the number of ACP-enrolled households (approximately 22 million) and the 16 million unconnected households reported in the 2021 Census.

Consequently, they pushed back on Rosenworcel's November claim that 25 million households will lose their internet service if the program doesn't get new funding, calling her estimate "speculative." Rosenworcel clarified that number reflects the Commission's projection that the ACP will have approximately 25 million enrolled households when the last full benefit is expected in April 2024.

In her response Rosenworcel also noted that the program, as outlined by Congress, doesn't mandate providers to inquire whether households paid for broadband before the subsidy. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law doesn't limit ACP participation to first-time broadband users, and identified a series of programs—including Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Pell Grants, and Veterans and Survivors Pension Benefits—to qualify households for participation in ACP.

Among those questioning the ACP was Senator Ted Cruz, who was included in a group of key lawmakers Rosenworcel recently contacted to plead for more funding. Cruz represents Texas, which has the fourth highest number of ACP subscribers (1.67 million). Senator Bob Latta, who also signed on to this week's query, represents Ohio (1.14 million), which has the fifth highest number of ACP subscribers.

Blair Levin of New Street Research called the fate of the ACP the most important current issue in telecommunications policy “by far,” in terms of the number of people it will impact, as well as its influence on the economy and the cost of the delivery of essential public services. 

As for the true number that will be affected if the program ends, no one can know with certainty, according to Levin. “Everyone is making, at best, educated guesses,” he told Fierce Telecom.

Uncertain future

If the ACP does indeed run out of money before Congress approves more funding, Levin suggested a mixed outcome for participants, which could make the number impacted hard to discern.

There might be some households that continue service using their own resources, while others drop off forever. Some could stay on, then drop off, then get back on. “For many low-income households, the digital divide is not a hurdle that, once cleared, means they are forever-after connected,” he said. “It is a recurring condition that takes time and effort to manage."   

John Horrigan, fellow at the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society, estimated that nationally, 49% of low-income households are “subscription vulnerable,” meaning they have lost connectivity in the prior year or worry about whether they can afford next month’s bill.

Congress as a whole has been unclear about what it would take for them to support permanent funding. Last week a group of lawmakers proposed ACP-extension legislation that would that would allocate an additional $7 billion to support the program, but Levin told Fierce that chances of the bill becoming law is “significantly below 50%.”

The FCC said it would begin winding down the program in preparation for funding to run out, and issued a notice stating it plans to halt new ACP enrollments after February 7.