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News / Nation & World

Internet program missed by millions; Congress called upon to keep rural people connected

By Sarah Jane Tribble, KFF Health News
Published: June 15, 2024, 6:01am
2 Photos
Myrna Broncho lives on the Fort Hall Reservation in rural southeast Idaho on Broncho Road, which is named after her family. Broncho enrolled in the federal Affordable Connectivity Program, which provided discounts on internet service. &Ccedil;&fnof;&uacute;I love it,&Ccedil;&fnof;&ugrave; she says, but the program is ending.
Myrna Broncho lives on the Fort Hall Reservation in rural southeast Idaho on Broncho Road, which is named after her family. Broncho enrolled in the federal Affordable Connectivity Program, which provided discounts on internet service. ǃúI love it,ǃù she says, but the program is ending. (Sarah Jane Tribble/KFF Health News/TNS) (Sarah Jane Tribble/KFF Health News) Photo Gallery

FORT HALL RESERVATION, Idaho — Myrna Broncho realized just how necessary an internet connection can be after she broke her leg.

In fall 2021, the 69-year-old climbed a ladder to the top of a shed in her pasture. The roof that protects her horses and cows needed to be fixed. So, drill in hand, she pushed down.

That’s when she slipped.

Broncho said her leg snapped between a pair of ladder rungs as she fell, “and my bone was sticking out, and the only thing was holding it was my sock.”

Broncho arm-crawled back to her house to reach her phone. She hadn’t thought to take it with her because, she said, “I never really dealt with phones.”

Broncho needed nine surgeries and rehabilitation that took months. Her hospital was more than two hours away in Salt Lake City, and her home internet connection was vital for her to keep track of records and appointments, as well as communicate with her medical staff.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, federal lawmakers launched the Affordable Connectivity Program with the goal of connecting more people to their jobs, schools and doctors. More than 23 million low-income households, including Broncho’s, eventually signed on. The program provided $30 monthly subsidies for internet bills, or $75 discounts in tribal or high-cost areas like Broncho’s.

Now, the Affordable Connectivity Program is out of money.

In early May, Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., challenged an effort to continue funding the program, saying during a commerce committee hearing that it needed to be revamped.

“As is currently designed, ACP does a poor job of directing support to those who truly need it,” Thune said, adding that too many people who already had internet access used the subsidies.

As the program funding dwindled, both Democrats and Republicans pushed for new legislative action with proposals trying to address concerns like the ones Thune raised.

On May 31, as the program ended, President Joe Biden’s administration continued to call on Congress to take action. Meanwhile, the administration announced that more than a dozen companies — including AT&T, Verizon and Comcast — would offer low-cost plans to Affordable Connectivity Program enrollees. The administration said those plans could affect as many as 10 million households.

According to a survey of participants released by the Federal Communications Commission, more than two-thirds of households had inconsistent or no internet connection before enrolling in the program.

Broncho had an internet connection before the subsidy, but on this reservation in rural Southeastern Idaho, where she lives, about 40 percent of the 200 households enrolled in the program had no internet before the subsidy.

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Nationwide, about 67 percent of nonurban residents reported having a broadband connection at home, compared with nearly 80 percent of urban residents, said John Horrigan, a national expert on technology adoption and senior fellow at the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society. Horrigan reviewed the data collected by a 2022 Census survey.

The FCC said on May 31 that ending the program will affect about 3.4 million rural and more than 300,000 households in tribal areas.

The end of federal subsidies for internet bills will mean “a lot of families who will have to make the tough choice not to have internet anymore,” said Amber Hastings, an AmeriCorps member serving the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes on the reservation. Some of the families Hastings enrolled had to agree to a plan to pay off past-due bills before joining the program. “So they were already in a tough spot,” Hastings said.

Matthew Rantanen, director of technology for the Southern California Tribal Chairmen’s Association, said the Affordable Connectivity Program was “extremely valuable.”

“Society has converted everything online. You cannot be in this society, as a societal member, and operate without a connection to broadband,” Rantanen said.