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Millions could lose internet access if this federal program expires

By Ruben Vives and Andrea Castillo, Los Angeles Times
Published: April 28, 2024, 6:00am
3 Photos
Claudia Alleman works on her computer, against a backdrop of photos of her family, in the living room of her family home in South Gate, California, on April 18, 2024. The Alleman family will be impacted when the federal internet subsidy program Affordable Connectivity Program will run out of funds next week. Thousands will be impacted in Los Angeles County when the program runs out of funds.
Claudia Alleman works on her computer, against a backdrop of photos of her family, in the living room of her family home in South Gate, California, on April 18, 2024. The Alleman family will be impacted when the federal internet subsidy program Affordable Connectivity Program will run out of funds next week. Thousands will be impacted in Los Angeles County when the program runs out of funds. (Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times/TNS) Photo Gallery

Four years ago, Claudia Aleman and her family had only one way to get online — through their cellphones. Without internet service on a computer, her youngest daughter couldn’t get homework assignments in on time, her parents couldn’t keep up with online doctor visits, and the English classes she wanted to sign up for were out of reach.

Then came a game-changer: The federal government started offering a subsidy that covered $30 of the family’s $80 monthly internet bill.

But while opening mail at her home in South Gate, California, two months ago, Aleman came across a letter from the Federal Communications Commission announcing that the Affordable Connectivity Program they had come to rely on would end in May unless Congress approved more funding.

“My husband is the only one who works, and everything is so expensive right now,” Aleman said. “Sometimes we don’t have $30 to spare.”

“The program made a significant difference in our lives,” she added. “Without it, life is going to be difficult, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels this way.”

The program, which was created after the pandemic forced many Americans to turn to the internet to connect with work and school, has 23 million enrollees nationwide — 1 in 6 U.S. households — including nearly 3 million in California.

Since 2021, it has provided a $30 monthly subsidy for low-income households and $75 for those on tribal lands. But the $14.2 billion funded through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act has run out.

April was the last month of full program benefits, but households could receive a partial discount in May.

In a letter to Congress this month, FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel warned that not funding the program would have widespread impact, especially for senior citizens, veterans, schoolchildren and residents of rural and tribal communities.

“Households across the country are now facing hard choices about what expenses they have to cut, including food and gas, to maintain their broadband access, with some households doubtful they can afford to keep their broadband service at all,” she wrote.

Internet service providers have their own programs for low-income households. People can enter their address on the FCC’s broadband map to find providers in their area. The California Public Utilities Commission also provides a list of providers with low-cost internet plans.

But finding a cheaper alternative can be difficult. Rural households sometimes have just one provider, and families who can’t afford it have little recourse.

Rep. Salud Carbajal, D-California, is among 228 bipartisan co-sponsors of the Affordable Connectivity Program Extension Act of 2024, which would provide an additional $7 billion to keep the program afloat for another year. Among the co-sponsors are 22 Republicans, including Rep. Young Kim of California.

“You’ve got to have your head in the sand to not understand the value of what this is doing to enhance our economy, enhance the skills and opportunities for so many Americans,” Carbajal said. Allowing the program to expire, he said, “will undo the progress we’ve made in closing the digital divide. It would take us back to the dark ages.”

But the bill hasn’t been brought for a standalone floor vote in the GOP-led House amid criticism from some Republicans who say the program subsidizes households that already had internet service. They also pointed to findings from the FCC’s internal watchdog last year that providers failed to comply with the program’s rules and improperly claimed funds.

In a statement last year, Sens. John Thune, R-South Dakota, and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said the program was “subject to massive waste, fraud, and abuse of taxpayer dollars.”

In an FCC survey of 5,300 households conducted in December, more than two-thirds of respondents said they had inconsistent or no internet before joining the federal program, the majority citing affordability. About one-third of respondents said they had both mobile and home internet service.

In October, the Biden administration sent Congress a supplemental request for $6 billion to keep the program running, but it didn’t pass.

Letting the program lapse, even if it could be restarted later, would require additional spending on outreach and re-enrollment, Carbajal said. He also worries that people who benefit from it will feel a sense of whiplash and lose trust in the federal government.

California recently dedicated $70 million in federal funding toward affordable internet service, devices and training. Carbajal said he’s glad to see his state acting, but it’s not enough.

“We can’t look at it from a parochial standpoint,” he said. “I’m not just looking out for the Central Coast and my state — I’m looking out for the entire nation.”

Still, Carbajal said he’s optimistic something will take hold before May 1. Similar circumstances have played out favorably at the last minute, he said.

In Los Angeles, the federal program has played an important role in the county’s effort to close the digital divide, which was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Through local promotion, enrollment in Los Angeles grew to nearly 1 million households.

County officials partnered with the nonprofit EveryoneOn to get the word out. Chief Executive Norma Fernandez worries families will be confused when they see their internet bill go up and won’t understand why the program ended.

“We tried so hard and provided tons of hands-on support to get people connected and then we’re going to pull it away from them,” she said. “It’s going to cause hopelessness.”

For Aleman’s family, the pandemic changed everything. When schools first shut down, they relied on a Los Angeles County Unified School District program that offered free internet to eligible students.

But the service was unreliable — access would frequently drop or freeze up. So Aleman started leaving her daughter Miranda, now 11, with her sister and neighbors who had reliable internet access so that she could attend online classes and do her homework.

“I think my daughter lost an entire school year,” she said.

Their need for internet access at home hasn’t changed since schools reopened. Most of Miranda’s assignments are still online.

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Life improved almost immediately after they enrolled in the federal subsidy program in 2022 and got internet access through AT&T. Miranda started turning in assignments on time. Aleman’s older daughters, 17 and 21, could do their schoolwork at home instead of at the library or relatives’ homes.

It also made a difference for her parents. Her father, who is diabetic, takes nutrition courses online, and her mother, who is asthmatic, needs regular video checkups with her doctor. And Aleman could finally stay in regular contact with family in Mexico.

Since learning that the program would end, Aleman said she has been applying for jobs to help her husband cover bills. In May, her husband will pay the internet bill, possibly with credit cards.

Beyond that, she said, “there’s always the library.”

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